Their goal the entire season was to get back to state and win, after two straight years of losing the championship game.
The first step has been taken.
Northwestern overcame a punishing Goose Creek rushing attack on Friday, surviving 41-34 and advancing to its third straight Class AAAA Division II state championship game. The Trojans (14-0) will play Greenwood at 8 p.m. on Dec. 3 at Columbia's Williams-Brice Stadium, for the prize on which they have staked the entire 2010 season.
They will find out in a week if this year's team will be the one to bring the elusive third title home, but on Friday, there seemed to be little doubt. Trailing 13-0 with 15 minutes gone in the game, unable to stop the Gators' beefy blockers and shifty tailbacks, Northwestern waited for its moment, then charged ahead.
"Our coaches do a great job of watching and adjusting to the opponent," said senior quarterback Justin Worley, who threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns, adding two more scores on the ground. "Our crowd got fired up after that, and it was just a matter of time before we got going."
"That" was a blocked PAT by Nick Cousar after the Gators (13-1) had scored their second touchdown. Sensing new life, the Trojans didn't falter.
Worley only needed four plays to get Northwestern to the end zone, most of the damage coming on a 47-yard burst from LaThomas Long. The Gators fumbled on their first play following the kickoff and the Trojans' Collins Mauldin recovered, but a bad snap eluded Worley on Northwestern's first play and the possession turned into an interception on a tipped pass.
Still, the teams combined for 40 points in the second quarter, and Goose Creek went into the locker room with a 27-20 lead. Tailback Jerome Jordan already had 123 yards on the ground and the Gators had 15 first downs; but Northwestern had scored three touchdowns on 13 plays.
Goose Creek, refusing to let its championship vision die, didn't buckle even when Worley found Robert Joseph in the back of the end zone for a 41-27 lead with 4:46 to play. A surprisingly fluid passing attack got Caleb Kinshaw in position for an 11-yard touchdown with 2:36 showing, and everybody in the stadium knew the Gators were going to onsides kick.
"All I thought was, 'I gotta catch it,' senior Tony Porter said, as the kick bounded to him. He did, the Trojans worked the clock and decided to punt instead of risking a fourth-and-2 play, Goose Creek moved to the 36 with less than five seconds to go and went for broke.
The pass was caught, but 6 yards short. The Trojans' defense, kicked in the teeth early, brought down one more man, saw the clock at zeroes and began celebrating.
Coach Jimmy Wallace, who has guided the Trojans to seven of their eight state championship appearances, couldn't stop praising his players. From the defense, which fell behind early but had the stops late; to the offense, which continued its quick-strike brilliance; Northwestern trusted in the system that had produced 13 straight wins, and it resulted in a 14th.
"We really got our noses bloodied early," Wallace said. "It's a tribute to the character of our team that we never quit fighting."
GOOSE CREEK 34
GC-Virgil Smalls 2 run (Masamitsu Ishibashi kick)
GC--Jaquan Marsh 5 run (Ishibashi kick blocked)
N--Stewart Hunt 10 pass from Justin Worley (Sully Foy kick)
GC--Jerome Jordan 42 run (Run failed)
N--Delvieon McCleod 7 run (Foy kick failed)
GC--Marsh 5 run (Jordan run)
N--Robert Joseph 69 pass from Worley (Foy kick)
N--Worley 6 run (Foy kick)
N--Worley 3 run (Foy kick)
N--Joseph 6 pass from Worley (Foy kick)
GC--Caleb Kinshaw 11 run (Ishibashi kick)
RUSHING- Northwestern: LaThomas Long 8-82, Delvieon McCleod 3-3, Justin Worley 6-(-26), A.J. Porter 2-46. Goose Creek: Jerome Jordan 18-122, Virgil Smalls 19-75, Jaquan Marsh 15-81, Caleb Kinlaw 6-69, Tramel Terry 1-(-2).
PASSING- Northwestern: Worley 23-30-264-2. Goose Creek: Marsh 9-15-136-0.
RECEIVING- Northwestern: Robert Joseph 10-139, McLeod 1-3, B.J. Boyd 4-40, Stewart Hunt 4-52, Long 2-14, Brandon Lewis 1-10, Kenneth Mitchell 1-6. Goose Creek: Smalls 1-8, Terry 6-113. Zack Lavery 1-3, James Robinson 1-12.
RECORDS: Northwestern 14-0; Goose Creek 13-1.