Chuck Berry’s rock-n-roll classic “Promised Land” blasts off with a rip-roaring solo on his favored Gibson ES guitar. It gets your attention quick-like.
Berry’s song, which mentions Rock Hill in unflattering terms during the first few lines, would serve as perfect example for Northwestern’s football team, which like Berry in Promised Land, hits the road Friday to take on Byrnes (11-1) in the second round of the Big 16 football state playoffs.
It’ll be the Trojans (9-3) and Rebels’ second meeting this season. Byrnes edged Northwestern in a nationally televised season opener, jumping out to a 30-6 lead and denying the Trojans’ comeback in a 30-22 win. If the Trojans’ journey toward the high school football Promised Land is to continue beyond Friday at Nixon Field in Duncan, they’ll need a collar-grabbing, Chuck Berry-type start... and finish.
“It’s gonna be another dog fight like it was in the first game,” Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson said. “We’re just hoping we can put two halves together and be in the game, versus putting one half together.”
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Byrnes has out-scored its opponents 120-14 in the first quarter this season; the Rebels scored touchdowns on four of their first six drives in the Aug. 22 win in Rock Hill that was shown on ESPNU. Northwestern only mustered a single touchdown from its first eight possessions, but did shut out the Rebel offense in the second half, and nearly came back and won. Richardson said it wasn’t any huge tactical adjustment at half time that tilted the momentum.
“Mainly our guys just calmed down,” he said. “Settled into the game and realized that the moment is not as big as you think it is, and we kind of went from there.”
There will be some noticeable differences from the season opener on Friday night. For one, the Nixon Field playing surface will probably be about 120 degrees cooler than District Three Stadium’s sizzling turf was in late August. That was on Richardson’s mind during an interview Thursday morning as he was bundled up in a beanie and sweatshirt.
Friday’s game will not be nationally televised. And the Trojans will have four players on each side of the ball that are either new to the starting lineup or in different positions compared to the first game.
“Normally, we know what we’ve got and roll with it,” said Richardson about his starting 22. “We had some changes we needed to make after an 0-2 start, and just worked every week to get better.”
The biggest change came at quarterback where Dupree Hart revitalized the Trojan offense with the dual threats he poses as a runner and thrower. Hart played some quarterback in the opener against Byrnes, but really took over after the Charlotte Catholic loss that dropped Northwestern to 0-2. The Trojans have averaged about 70 more yards of offense (420.5) and 15 more points per game (39.8) since the little shortstop took over at quarterback.
“We’re gonna do what’s got us to this point, what’s got us nine wins and there’s no secret about what we’re gonna do,” said Richardson.
Hart should be able to bail Northwestern’s offense out of some of the precarious situations that a defense like Byrnes’ forces teams into.
The Trojans were 4-of-13 on third down and 0-for-5 on fourth down in the first meeting. On third and fourth down plays with six or more yards to go, Northwestern only completed 2-of-9 passes, for a combined two yards and an interception. Hart did run for 13 yards and a first down on a third and 6, but that was the team’s only success in those third and fourth-and-long situations. Richardson said the Trojans ran into that problem against Gaffney, his team’s only loss in the last eight games.
“We went positive, positive, and then we’d take a sack or a negative run and it would get us out of rhythm,” he said.
That’s exactly what Northwestern’s defense will try and do to the Rebel offense. Byrnes has only turned the ball over 14 times this season, with junior quarterback Micah Young throwing just four interceptions in his first 12 games as the starter. But Brian Lane’s team only converts about 35 percent of their third down chances and Richardson said that when the Trojan defense forces Byrnes into third and fourth-and-longs, that they can’t let up.
“I think what we’ve got to do with their offense is force them into third and fourth down and long, but whatever we did to get them to third and fourth down and long, continue to put that pressure on them and that duress, versus a lot of teams I’ve seen just kind of let them off the hook; third and fourth going to a prevent.”
Richardson’s quote embodies the attitude the Trojans will need to take Friday: start fast and don’t let off the pedal. If Northwestern’s football team does that, it too could create a road result that will be remembered in Rock Hill as long as Chuck Berry’s rocker.