Nation Ford High’s special teams unit scored all of the Falcons’ 23 points in a nervy home region 23-21 victory Friday night over Northwestern.
Kicker Quinn Castner knocked home three first-half field goals, Petey Tuipulotu ran a bobbled Northwestern punt back 45 yards for a score, and Jerrick Foster ran a 65-yard kickoff return all the way to the end zone to help the Falcons (5-3, 2-1 in Region 3-AAAAA) secure a win in front of a chilly, but enthusiastic home crowd.
Trojans quarterback Riley Duran (21-for-35, 268 yards) threw three touchdowns in the third quarter to pull the visitors right back in contention. And it appeared Northwestern might pull off the comeback of the season as the fourth quarter opened.
But Duran suffered an injury on Northwestern’s first drive of the final quarter, and his backup Sydney Mullinex slotted in for the hurt signal-caller. Nation Ford’s Xavier Diaz later earned his second interception on the night, picking off Mullinex over the middle and allowing the Falcons offense to bleed the clock dry.
Diaz said he had a feeling he would snag the pass as soon as the ball left Mullinex’s fingers.
“When he threw the ball, I knew I had to go and get that,” Diaz said. “I think (our confidence) is all the way up there, especially when we get rolling. We do have slow times, but we’re strong and we keep going and fighting.”
Running back Nathan Mahaffey (153 yards) was able to secure a vital first down in the dying minutes on the final drive, and the Falcons executed victory formation to earn the win.
Head coach Michael Allen said he thought his team had plenty of things to iron out before the rest of the region schedule. His team will be in contention for a home playoff game if it earns a victory over Rock Hill next week at home.
“That’s where we want to be,” he said. “That’s the expectation. But we’ve got to clean a lot of things up first. We have to execute. I don’t think we’ve put together a full 48 minutes together.”
Castner knocked home his first kick of the day from 28 yards out after Northwestern (1-7, 0-2 Region 3-AAAAA) muffed a punt and allowed the Falcons to take over their second drive of the night on the opposing 19 yard line.
The punting woes continued on the ensuing Trojans possession. Following a short-lived drive, the Trojans attempted to punt from their own 40 yard line. The snap slipped through the Trojan punter’s hands, and Nation Ford’s Petey Tuipulotu burst through the line, snapped up the ball on the ground and ran home to the end zone from 35 yards out to put the Falcons up 10-0.
Castner later kicked field goals from 33 and 22 yards in the second quarter to pad the lead to 16-0 at halftime.
But Northwestern would not be denied in the second half. Duran found Gregory Bivens II (37 yards) in the right side of the endzone to open the Trojans’ account on the second half’s opening drive.
On the next Trojans possession, Duran and his offense drove 99 yards in 12 plays before ultimately finding Kyle Aldridge (94 yards) in the back of the end zone to cut the lead to 16-14.
Foster quickly swung the momentum back to Nation Ford when he was able to take the ensuing Northwestern kickoff 65 yards back the other way to keep the Falcons back on top 23-14.
Still, Duran was able to cut the lead back down to 23-21 when he connected with Ger-Cari Caldwell (130 yards) over the middle for a 54-yard score on Northwestern’s next drive.
Duran and Nation Ford quarterback Gabe Huitt (8-for-21, 104 yards) both suffered injuries around the fourth quarter. Huitt later said he iced his left knee throughout the fourth quarter, and felt he would be OK to play in next week’s region game against Rock Hill.
KEY TURNING POINT: An interception
Northwestern seemed to move the ball at will in the second half, and the Trojans might have taken the lead if one crucial fourth-quarter play had played out as expected.
Down by 2 with 7 minutes left to play, Mullinex found Caldwell on a slant pass from Northwestern’s 10-yard line, and the wide receiver easily outstripped a series of Falcons defenders to run the other way for what could have been a 90-yard score. But a block-in-the-back penalty call negated the play.
Diaz picked off Mullinex later in the drive.
KEY PERFORMERS: Micha Brown
Credit Duran for lighting a fire under Northwestern with his third-quarter drives. His wide receiver corps consistently made smart route-runs to get open, and Duran did his part to find them in open space.
On the other side of the ball, Nation Ford’s Micah Brown tallied nine tackles, including four for loss and two sacks.
Nation Ford will host Rock Hill next week, while Northwestern will host Fort Mill.
NFHS – Quinn Castner 28-yard field goal, 7:53, 3-0
NFHS – Petey Tuipulotu 45-yard punt return for TD, PAT good by Castner, 4:43, 10-0
NFHS – Castner 33 yard field goal, 11:10, 13-0
NFHS – Castner 22-yard field goal, 6.4 seconds, 16-0
NHS – Gregory Bivens 9-yard receiving touchdown from Riley Duran, PAT good by Kanoah Vinesett, 11:11, 16-7
NHS – Anderson Aldridge 8-yard receiving touchdown from Riley Duran, PAT good by Vinesett, 4:11, 16-14
NFHS – Jerrick Foster 65-yard kickoff return touchdown, PAT good by Castner, 4:06, 23-14
NHS – Ger-Cari Caldwell 54-yard receiving touchdown from Riley Duran, PAT good by Vinesett, 3:39, 23-21
SCORE BY QUARTER