In its three biggest regular season games this season, Northern Lehigh owned the second half. When Saturday's District 11 Class AA semifinal was close at halftime, the Bulldogs liked their position.
Northern Lehigh had a one-point lead after two quarters Saturday. If not for a late first-half touchdown, Jim Thorpe could have been ahead at halftime.
But as Northern Lehigh has done before, it dominated the second half en route to a 34-19 win. The win sets up a district title rematch against North Schuylkill, which beat Pen Argyl in Saturday's other semifinal.
"We believe that we're a strong second-half team," said Northern Lehigh head coach Joe Tout. "Anytime it's tied or we're ahead at halftime, we feel good because we're going to wear them down by the fourth quarter."
Jim Thorpe bottled up Cody Remaley, who didn't cross the 100-yard mark until his last run. The Colonial League's all-time leading rusher finished with 101 yards on 23 carries.
In the first half, Remaley had just 35 yards as five of his 10 carries went for negative yardage. The Olympians stopped eight plays in the backfield in the first half.
"I think our defensive line and linebackers dominated the line of scrimmage," said Jim Thorpe head coach Mark Rosenberger. "We got penetration. We did a good job on three out of four plays on every series."
"They gave us a lot of different looks," Tout said. "They blitzed a ton. They stunted the heck out of us."
Behind that strong defensive effort, Jim Thorpe took a 13-7 lead when Terry Moll hit Khaaliq Lynch with a 14-yard touchdown pass with just 26 seconds left in the second quarter.
Northern Lehigh answered with a three-play touchdown drive in which quarterback Dylan Hofmann found receiver Caleb Johnson for a 31-yard gain to set up Jake Kern's 5-yard touchdown catch.
Hofmann, who averaged 4.3 pass attempts per game in the regular season, completed five of nine passes and threw for two touchdowns against Jim Thorpe.
"Of course I like passing," Hofman said. "Usually I don't have to. When somebody else is down we have to pick each other up and that's what we did tonight."
With a 14-13 lead, the Bulldogs opened the second half with an 8-play drive in which Jake Kern faked a punt to earn a fourth down and later scored on a fourth-down run. His 34 yards for a touchdown put his team up 21-13 with 7:56 left in the third quarter.
As the Bulldog offense got rolling, the defense forced punts or turnovers on each of Jim Thorpe's first five possessions after hafltime.
Northern Lehigh's increased its lead after Johnson forced a fumble which Kern recovered at the Jim Thorpe 40-yard line. Two plays later fullback Matt Gill ran 14 yards for a touchdown and a 27-13 lead with 10:23 left in the game.
Hofmann sealed the win when he perfectly executed one of his team's bread and butter plays – the mid-line option.
Running around the right side of the line, he put the ball in Gill's gut long enough for the defense to converge on the fullback. Then Hofmann ripped the ball out and dashed 43 yards for the touchdown that sealed the win, giving his team a 34-13 lead with 4:41 left.
"He's a playmaker," said Tout. "He threw the ball well, especially right before halftime. When we run that mid-line option, Matt wants that ball. Give Dylan credit. He ripped that from Matt."
"We had the kid tackled and he pulled it out of Gill's hand before he hit the ground," said Rosenberger. "It was a good play. He's a good quarterback."
Rosenberger was happy to see his team go down fighting.
"I'm extremely proud of my football team," he said. "We asked our kids to come on this field and leave everything they have on this field and I have no doubt they did that tonight. For 48 minutes of football our kids fought and played as well as they have all year."
The Olympians earned the Bulldogs' respect with their effort.
"Their line was big," said Hofmann. "They're physical. They came from everywhere. Hats off to Jim Thorpe. They were bunch of tough kids. They played hard and they played to the end too."
Northern Lehigh's second-half effort is something players are getting used to.
"We condition every day throughout the week," Kern said. "That's our strong point coming into the second half. It gives us confidence, but we know we can't rely on it. We still have to play the first half like we know we can."
@Breif.Head:No. Lehigh ticket sales
Advanced ticket sales for the District 11 Class AA championship game between North Schuylkill and Northern Lehigh on Saturday at 7 p.m. in Bulldog Stadium can be purchased in the Northern Lehigh Main Office.
Tickets can be purchased Tuesday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Friday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Ticket prices are $6 for adult and $3 for students and sr. citizens. All tickets at the gate are $6