Northwestern football fans headed to Columbia for the South Carolina-Clemson tilt will have to make plans for a return the following Saturday after the Trojans cruised past North Augusta 49-21 Friday night and into the Class AAAA Division II state championship.
The Trojans (14-0) will face Stratford at noon at Williams-Brice Stadium on Dec. 7, after the Knights dropped South Pointe 36-13 in Goose Creek. Northwestern will seek redemption for last season's overtime loss in the state title game to Greenwood. That's something they've thought about for nearly a year.
“It's here now,” said Trojan head coach Kyle Richardson. “Our guys have done a good job of staying focused on one game at a time. Now, they can get focused on there's one game left. We felt we left some stuff on the field there last year, and it's been about finishing business. It's like I told them in the locker room, 'all right, you're here. Now go finish it.'”
The focus Friday night at District 3 Stadium was on another dominant performance that kept Richardson's bunch undefeated. Junior Dupree Hart had 251 yards of total offense and four touchdowns, and broke NFL star A.J. Green's state record for career receptions (279).
“He's done that stuff all year so it wasn't really a surprise to us,” said Northwestern quarterback Mason Rudolph, who threw for 319 yards and six touchdown passes.
Northwestern's defense surrendered a handful of big plays to the Yellow Jackets (12-2), but also created four turnovers and took advantage of a bad punt snap deep in the North Augusta end. Twice Trojan defensive backs were beaten for long passes downfield by Trib Reece's arm, and twice senior safety Corey Seargent stripped the receivers for fumbles that were recovered by Northwestern.
“I messed up on the deep ball,” said Seargent. “I had to go get it back for us.”
It all left North Augusta and its coach Dan Pippin feeling a little flattened.
“I don't think if we do anything... if we don't cough it up...” Pippin paused.
“That's the best football team in the state.”
Northwestern scored on its second drive, a 13-play move, to grab a 6-0 lead. Hart's first touchdown, a 25-yard dart from Rudolph after a defender-freezing pump fake, broke Robert Joseph's school record for career receptions, and Hart's second TD grab broke the state career receptions record held by former Summerville standout and current Cincinnati Bengal A.J. Green.
The Trojan defense forced the visitors into a three-and-out and scored on the next possession for a three-score lead. Mason Rudolph hit Quadarius Fair for a 27-yard gain and Hart wiggled inside the 10 with a typically shifty run. Two plays later, Rudolph ticked through his progressions before whipping a pass into Julian Shockley's hands for a 21-0 lead.
North Augusta answered within seconds from its 32-yard line, Yellow Jacket QB Trib Reece heaving a pass to Dre Dunbar near midfield, and he ran into the end zone when a Trojan defensive back stumbled to make it 21-7.
North Augusta's defensive bucked up and sacked Rudolph twice on the next drive, forcing a home team punt. Dan Pippin's team thought they had the lead cut to one score when Jaleel Bryant sneaked behind the Trojan secondary and caught a 48-yard pass from Reece, only to fumble out of the end zone when Northwestern's Seargent slapped across his arms at the goal line.
“Got beat on the play, but didn't pout about it,” said Richardson. “(Seargent) just went down there and made two strips on two touchdown-saving plays.”
That was the Yellow Jackets' chance. Hart gathered in the opening kickoff, sprinted into a jumble of players, bounced toward the left sideline and slipped away from a pair of tacklers before bursting down the boundary behind a phalanx of Trojans and into the end zone for an 87-yard return touchdown.
“For that to happen right at coming out, that kind of took the wind out,” said Pippin.
Hart's return was the answer Richardson wanted, though perhaps a little quicker than he expected.
“We reminded them of Byrnes, it was 21-7 at half and next thing you know you're in a dogfight. So, we challenged special teams, we challenged the offense because they were the first two that were gonna get it, 'do something to keep the momentum on our side' and he did. It was lights out once he got the ball in his hands.”
Hart's dazzling night epitomized what's been a charmed season for the Trojans. Thus far.
“Last year was kind of like a big deal, 'oh, we're playing in the state championship, we get to go in their locker room,'” said Rudolph. “This year, we know what the deal is. We're going to come a lot more focused and ready to go.”
Northwestern 49, North Augusta 21
NAHS 0;7;7;7 - 21
NHS 6;15;14;14 - 49
NHS – Dupree Hart 25 pass from Mason Rudolph (Sully Foy kick failed)
NHS – Hart 2 pass from M. Rudolph (Logan Rudolph 2 pass from M. Rudolph)
NHS – Julian Shockley 2 pass from M. Rudolph (Foy kick)
NAHS – Dre Dunbar 68 pass from Trib Reece (Blake Busby kick)
NHS – Hart 87 kick return (Foy kick)
NHS – Shockley 9 pass from Rudolph (Foy kick)
NAHS – Rashad Byrd 8 pass from Reece (Busby kick)
NHS – Hart 21 pass from Rudolph (Foy kick)
NAHS – Ronald Williams 2 run (Busby kick)
NHS – Quadarius Fair 53 pass from Rudolph (Foy kick)
RUSHING NAHS: Willie McCloud 10-37; DaShawn Barnes 8-21; Ronald Williams 2-9; Trib Reece 2-(-22). NHS: Julian Shockley 14-100; Dupree Hart 3-18; Mason Rudolph 14-2; T.J. Robinson 1-1; Tori Adams 4-0.
PASSING NAHS: Reece 16-31-2-2. NHS: Rudolph 28-39-1-6; Harper Woods 2-2-0-0.
RECEIVING NAHS: Keyon West 6-95; Dre Dunbar 4-98; Jaleel Bryant 3-94; Rashad Byrd 1-8; Antaun Andrews 1-7; Colton Johnson 1-(-1). NHS: Hart 9-124; Shockley 7-45; Quadarius Fair 6-125; Logan Rudolph 4-23; Davion Blake 3-8; Ahmad Dewese 1(-1).
RECORDS NAHS 12-2; NHS 14-0
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T