Northwestern’s first offensive play of the 2014 high school football season Friday evening went for a 5-yard loss and a safety for Byrnes.
As Rebel defensive back Lyrics Klugh said, the safety “set it off” for the visitors.
"It just made the momentum go towards us and it just led through the whole game," said Klugh, who intercepted two passes as Byrnes held off a second half comeback to beat Northwestern 30-22 at District Three Stadium.
All eyes were on a pair of rookie quarterback starters in a season-opener played in sneaker-melting heat before a national ESPNU television audience. Byrnes’ Micah Young looked like he was making his 100th start, throwing for 252 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. He finished the game 20 for 35 with 326 yards and three scores, against just one pick.
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Like Young, most of Byrnes’ production came in the first half. Trailing 30-6, the Trojans regrouped at the intermission and shut out the Rebels 16-0 in the second 24 minutes. Northwestern’s first-time starter Harper Woods showed some jitters, completing 16 of 33 passes for 152 yards, two interceptions and a touchdown. But he stood up to an incessant Byrnes pass rush, which had a hand, or several, in Woods’ two interceptions, both caught by Klugh.
“Our secondary is pretty good back there, but Lyrics Klugh is the real deal, he is the real deal,” said Byrnes head coach Brian Lane about his Division I-recruited cornerback. “So we just try to get a little pressure out there and get him to throw one up and go get it.”
Still, Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson, who hadn’t given a losing post-game interview in over a year and a half, praised his group for the second half fight-back.
“Proud of this bunch,” he said. “We knew with the inexperience this team has we could struggle. We just wanted to be in it late with a shot. We challenged them to win the second half and that’s what they did, and honestly, with a minute left, we had a shot to make something happen. We’re gonna build off it and get better. This is why we play these games.”
This was no rehash of last year’s overtime thriller. The Rebels put it on the defending state champs early. Young, looking like a seasoned veteran early on.
“We just got to continue to work, get him to hit his check-downs and he’ll be all right,” said Lane. “Good job winning his first start.”
It was the Byrnes defense that put Lane’s group on the front foot. A 48-yard punt by Holden Owens pinned the Trojans at their 5, and Julian Shockley got creamed for a 5-yard loss and a two-point safety on the very next play. The safety not only put the Rebels up 2-0, it also flipped the field on the Trojans, who couldn’t get out from under the field position boulder the entire first half.
“You’ve got seven new dudes out there on offense and the first snap they get is a safety,” said Richardson. “So that was tough.”
Byrnes marched down the field, Young hitting Braylin Collins for 10 yards on a fourth down to stretch the possession, and the junior QB made it look easy when he sprinted into the end zone from 9 yards out for a 9-0 Rebel lead.
Northwestern went backwards on the next drive, kicking it back to the visitors. Byrnes started with cushy field position, as it did much of the first half, the Rebels gnashing their teeth at the 48 as they cruised toward the Constitution Boulevard end zone. Young found receiving tank Tavin Richardson across the middle of the field for 23 yards and a first down, before dumping a short pass to Chavis Dawkins near the right sideline. The lone Trojans defensive back was out-manned and Dawkins followed a couple of blocks before a giddy skip into the end zone for a 16-0 lead with 3 minutes, 45 seconds left in the first quarter.
Northwestern’s answer came in the form of a T.C. Caldwell interception a possession later, and the Trojans cut the Byrnes lead to 16-6 several minutes later. Woods found Logan Rudolph open in a secondary window and he rumbled deep into Rebel turf. Woods kept his cool several plays later to waltz in from six yards when the defense had backed off.
But the Rebels scored the last 14 points of the half to put their cleats firmly on the hosts’ necks. Northwestern appeared to have gotten off the field, but a defensive holding call in the secondary extended the Byrnes drive, and Young seized upon the chance, flicking a 26-yard touchdown pass to Najee Bowens to make it 23-6. And it was 30-6 with 3 minutes, 3 seconds left in the half, when Northwestern sold out on a Byrnes’ third and long, sending extra players on a blitz. Young lobbed the ball to Isaiah Hill and the Miami (OH)-committed running back skidded off a tackle before racing 86 yards for a back-breaking TD.
Trailing 30-6, Northwestern won the second half, thanks in part to an increased pass rush. Linebacker Trae’von Hinton and senior defensive end Chris Bouyer both had a pair of sacks in the game, while the Trojan offense found its feet, at times using Dupree Hart as a wildcat quarterback. Hart was held to just 100 yards of receiving and rushing offense, and largely squelched in the kick return game.
But trailing 30-16, Hart found Kirk Clayton wide open down the right sideline for a 19-yard touchdown. Hart then kept the ball himself to convert the two-point conversion and make it 30-22 with 2 minutes, 46 seconds left. It was too little, too late. Northwestern looked like it might get the ball back with a dozen or so seconds left, but roughed the Byrnes punter, ironic in a game in which the Rebels were flagged 13 times. Byrnes’ first-year head coach didn’t care how it happened, just that his team was 1-0.
“I want to get a complete game,” said Lane, before underscoring the key takeaway from Friday night’s contest: “but it’s early.”