Rock Hill football nearly lost its cool, nearly lost another rivalry game to Northwestern on Thursday night.
Northwestern’s offense -- in sleep mode for the first three quarters -- scored 21 in the fourth to tie the game at 21 with about 4 minutes remaining. But Rock Hill caught its breath and converted a third and long play near midfield, and Narii Gaither scored from a yard out several plays later for the winning touchdown in a 28-21 victory.
“I was just hoping our kids wouldn’t get too tight,” said Rock Hill coach Bubba Pittman. “We started doing some things that are out of character for us, let them get back in the football game. Just proud of the kids for fighting back.”
The Bearcats (7-2, 4-0 Region 3-5A) snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Trojans, beating Northwestern (3-6, 3-1) for the first time since 2009. That was also the same year Rock Hill last won a city title. The Bearcats’ win over South Pointe earlier this season, coupled with the victory over the Trojans, earned Bubba Pittman’s team a Rock Hill city title too.
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The game started a bit slowly, but turned into the kind of city rivalry game that would have had legendary Herald sportswriters like Buddy McCarter or Barry Byers rubbing their hands together in delight.
Rock Hill dominated the first half, running the ball 23 times and throwing -- unsuccessfully -- just once. The plan worked and the Bearcats led 14-0 at the break behind two Narii Gaither rushing scores.
Northwestern cut Rock Hill’s 14-0 lead in half with a 34-yard touchdown pass from Dustin Noller to Gregory Bivens Jr., early in the fourth quarter. But that score lasted about a minute. Bearcat QB Hayden Jackson fired to Antonio Barber, who was crossing through the middle of the field, and he sped down the sideline, beating a couple of Trojan tacklers near the goal line for a 64-yard touchdown to stretch the lead back to two scores.
Bivens Jr., caught a beautiful 25-yard pass in the back left corner of the end zone to make it 21 all and raise the pulses of everyone in the stadium. But the score left enough time for the Bearcats to march back down the field and win the game.
“We were ready for this,” said Rock Hill running back Noah Thompson. “We’ve been preparing for this dang-near all summer.”
With the score tied at 21 in the fourth quarter, Rock Hill faced a third and 1 near midfield, but false-started two plays in a row. Suddenly it was third and 11 and felt like a very bad situation for the Bearcats. But QB Hayden Jackson threw -- a little too high probably -- toward senior Raphael Wright Jr. He came down with the ball for a 15-yard gain and a first down that kept the Rock Hill drive alive.
“I had to buckle it down,” said Wright Jr. “The game’s on the line and I had to catch it and I’m a senior and I just want to go out strong, and I had to do it for my boys.”
The Bearcats then rode Gaither inside the Northwestern red zone and he scored his third touchdown, the game-winner, with 16 seconds left.
Rock Hill had rushed for over 270 yards in seven straight games. Make it eight.
Thompson had 104 yards in a first half where the Bearcats ran the ball 23 times and threw it just once.
And there was only one turnover Thursday night, a Northwestern interception thrown into Rock Hill’s end zone to squash a Trojan scoring drive. That proved fatal in a one-score game.
Thompson shouldered the load in Rock Hill’s offensive backfield, finishing with 126 yards. Gaither ran for 119 yards and three touchdowns and played significantly at middle linebacker for the Bearcats.
“Our offensive line, they go crazy every game and it’s just amazing to watch them do it every game,” said Thompson.
Rock Hill defensive tackle Logan Hicks had a sack and key tackle-for-loss that forced a Trojans punt, while defensive back Nick Ervin had an interception and a fully stretched pass breakup early in the third quarter.
Bivens Jr., had two slick TD catches for the Trojans.
Both teams host home games in the first round of the 5A playoffs on Nov. 9 (reminder that the South Carolina High School League extended the regular season one week because of Hurricane Florence). By winning Region 3-5A, Rock Hill will host the fifth-placed team from Region 1, either Greenwood or Easley. Northwestern finished second in Region 3-5A and will host the fourth-placed team from Region 2, Boiling Springs.
Rock Hill;7;7;0;14 - 28
Northwestern;0;0;0;14 - 21
RHHS - Narii Gaither 1 run (Collin Muschik kick), 3:40
RHHS - Gaither 3 run (Muschik kick), 3:29
NHS -- Gregory Bivens Jr., 34 pass from Dustin Noller (Nick Acus kick), 9:50
RHHS -- Antonio Barber 64 pass from Hayden Jackson (Muschik kick), 9:41
NHS -- Antonio Heath 7 run (Acus kick), 7:01
RHHS -- Gaither 1 run (Muschik kick), 0:16
RUSHING RHS: Narii Gaither 24-119, Noah Thompson 22-126, Hayden Jackson 6-26. NHS: Antonio Heath 17-89, Ghari Page 9-6, Dustin Noller 3-(-1), Marquez Cherry 1-(-1).
PASSING RHS: Jackson 3-5-0, 81 yards. NHS: 19-28-1, 243 yards.
RECEIVING RHS: Antonio Barber 2-66, Raphael Wright Jr., 1-15. NHS: Jamaar Moore 8-75, Jamario Holley 3-49, Heath 3-44, Gregory Bivens Jr., 2-56, Carson DePass 2-16, Kyle Aldridge 1-3.
RECORDS Rock Hill 7-2, 4-0 Region 3-5A; Northwestern 3-6, 3-1.