By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – For the second straight week, Bedford North Lawrence’s underrated defense will face one of the state’s high-scoring counterparts on the opposite side. This time, it’ll be a test of Braun and brains.
The Stars, sitting atop the Hoosier Hills Conference after three consecutive victories, will celebrate Homecoming when they clash with Jennings County on Friday night. The Panthers have the offensive muscle and the lack of league reputation to ruin the festivities if BNL lacks the proper focus.
Powered by star running back Branden Braun, the focal point of Jennings’ modified wing-T attack, the Panthers are one of the state’s best scoring teams at 40.4 points per game. Last week, the Stars limited Seymour’s high-flying passing game to two touchdowns below its average output during a key road triumph. This will be a flip-side situation. BNL (3-2 overall) must be able to match Braun with its own brawn.
“We’ll be challenged in a different way,” BNL coach Derrick Barker said “This is more about being disciplined, being physical, being fundamentally sound, being able to tackle.
“It’s just as big of a challenge as last week. We have our work cut out for us. Jennings County is a very good football team, they score a lot of points. It will be a tough game. We have to be ready to go from the start.”
Braun’s numbers are impressive. He’s rushed for 738 yards (averaging a robust 8.2 per carry) and 14 touchdowns, and he’s caught 16 passes for 204 yards and two TDs. While the true wing-T relies on misdirection and ball fakes for effectiveness, there’s no secret about Jennings’ objective. Get the best player the ball.
“Every time Branden touches the ball, there is potential of a big play happening,” Jennings coach T.J. Newton said. “He runs the ball hard, has great vision, and the speed to break away from the defense.”
“He’s really good, the best we’ve seen,” Barker said. “He’s good at everything. He’s a good runner, he can catch the ball in the screen game. The stats show it.”
Jennings (3-2 overall, 0-2 in the HHC) torched Brown County for 60 points and is coming off a 54-26 win over Madison. While the Panthers have had to adjust since losing starting quarterback Parker Elmore to an injury during a 41-20 loss to New Albany, they’re still dangerous.
“With that offense, it’s tough,” Barker said. “If you’re not reading your keys, if you’re looking at the misdirection, you can get confused.”
BNL’s attack has been more diverse. Cal Gates leads the balanced running game with 419 yards and six touchdowns, while quarterback Memphis Louden has totaled 365 yards and five TDs. Louden’s passing numbers don’t leap off the page (28 of 67 for 640 yards and 8 touchdowns), but he’s thrown only one interception. Gates (8 catches for 215 yards and 4 scores) and Ryker Hughes (7 for 215 and 3 TDs) are his top targets, and they have gotten Newton’s attention.
“Coach Barker does a great job of finding different ways to put the ball in his playmakers’ hands,” Newton said. “Their defense did a great job holding Seymour below 30 points. BNL replaced a lot of seniors on defense, so that is pretty impressive with all the new faces.”
BNL’s key will be maintaining focus. Human nature is a problem when facing an opponent that has won only seven times in 50 meetings in the series, when the next game on BNL’s schedule could decide the league title. That won’t be the case if the Stars are guilty of overlooking the next obstacle.
“There’s always a concern with high school kids, after a big game last week, with the distractions of Homecoming,” Barker said. “But we have a good group with a lot of good leaders who are making sure we’re focused on what’s important. We’ve got this momentum going. Winning last week was a big game, so hopefully we take that and play even better.”
BNL won last year’s battle with Jennings by a 21-7 count, and the defense was the story. The Stars allowed only two first downs and 48 total yards in the first half. Louden ran for 141 yards and one score, and he connected with Dylan Nikirk for a 68-yard touchdown strike.
JENNINGS COUNTY at BNL
Kickoff: Friday, 7 p.m.
Records: Jennings County 3-2 (0-2 in HHC); BNL 3-2 (3-0 in HHC)
Coaches: T.J. Newton, 6-9 in second season at Jennings County; Derrick Barker, 13-13 in third season at BNL
Sagarin ratings: Jennings County 42.85; BNL 68.86
Series: BNL leads 43-7
Last meeting: Last year at Jennings, Memphis Louden ran for 141 yards and a touchdown, and threw for another score, as the Stars prevailed 21-7. The Panthers were limited to two first downs in the first half.
Previous game story: Stars ground the wing-T
Game notes: BNL has won six straight games in the series. The Panthers are seeking only their second winning campaign since 2015. Jennings ranks 35th in the state in scoring at 40.4 points per game.