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PINETOPS — Despite another blistering signature start, the SouthWest Edgecombe High varsity football team fell behind for the first time in the 2019 North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-A playoffs Friday night — and could not recover.
Down 12-0 with less than five minutes elapsed, Elizabeth City Northeastern, seeded No. 3 among the 16 East Region qualifiers, bounced back with 28 consecutive points en route to a 35-20 conquest of the No. 2 Cougars in the third round or East semifinals on SouthWest’s turf.
The Cougars of seventh-year head coach Jonathan Cobb were stopped one win shy of the program benchmark in playing the day after Thanksgiving for the fourth time in the last seven years and stepping aside with a 12-2 record.
Northeastern, which finished the 2-A state runner-up last season, vaulted into the East title game against top-seeded Clinton, emerged 7-0 on the road and carries a 11-3 record to Clinton.
The Eagles, victorious against SouthWest in the 2014 playoffs, limited SouthWest’s wishbone and shotgun attacks to a season-low 167 yards total offense and converted a fumble recovery and one of three interceptions into TDs.
To its credit, SouthWest hung around until junior Northeastern cornerback Kentrell Williams intercepted his first of two passes and returned it 55 yards for a 34-20 lead with just three minutes, 29 seconds remaining. Senior place-kicker Caleb Brickhouse kicked the extra point.
The distraught Cougars lingered in the stadium long after the outcome was decided — as if refusing to believe another championship season had ended.
“I know you are all disappointed,” Cobb said of his words to his players during the final postgame huddle. “But you will look back one day and realize this was a special season. They gave me everything they had and that’s all you can ask. I’m proud of them.”
Cobb and his players credited big, strong and rugged Northeastern and its two-headed offensive scheme that showcased senior Holden Hodge taking the snaps in the spread and junior Deandre Proctor situated under center in the power-I.
Northeastern powered its way to 292 rushing yards in amassing 337 yards total offense — despite the defensive efforts of the overworked SouthWests trio of senior Davis Wainwright, junior John Barrett and senior Landyn Harrell.
“We played physical,” reviewed Northeastern head coach Antonio Moore. “We started off in the spread and had a little success early. But in the power I, we were moving the ball a little better — and stayed in it.
Moore contended receiving the second-half kickoff and driving to a touchdown to stretch the lead to 21-12 was the turning point.
“Getting the ball at the beginning of the second half was a big deal,” Moore declared. “That means you go up two scores, and they were not used to being behind.”
The Eagles capped the 77-yard march on junior Juan Riddick’s 37-yard scamper and Brickhouse’s PAT.
The deficit forced the Cougars out of their comfort zone. They took more risks, summoned 6-foot-4, 180-pound senior star Keishon Porter to operate the shotgun and put the football into the air more frequently.
At its 25-yard line late in the third quarter, SouthWest faked a punt on fourth down.
The football was fumbled. Northeastern junior Quasi Thomas grabbed the loose ball and rambled 22 yards for a 28-12 Eagles advantage.
“That was huge,” Moore assured. “We knew they could possibly fake it. At that point, they couldn’t afford to punt. We were fortunate enough to get it.”
But hope flickered for SouthWest with a 57-yard march out of the shotgun formation. Porter rambled 37 yards and skirted left to score from two yards out. Senior Cortezz Jones bulled over for the two-point conversion and the Cougars trailed 28-20 with 8:44 still remaining.
SouthWest’s defense held, with Wainwright’s tackle forcing a fumble that senior Kedar Darden recovered. But the Cougars fumbled and Eagles senior Adrian Spellman rcovered at SouthWest’s 16-yard line. Yet, the Eagles were unable to put SouthWest two scores behind because of a missed field-goal attempt from 21 yards.
However, Williams intercepted Porter the next two possessions and sealed the Cougars’ fate with his 55-yard TD return.
“We were excited, felt like we were in the game,” Barrett expressed of SouthWest cutting the deficit to 28-20. “But we never felt we were out of the game.
“(Northeastern) had a lot of good football players.”
Added Porter: “But they were beatable. We just made too many mistakes and they capitalized.”
Cortezz Jones returned the opening kickoff to Northeastern’s 44-yard line to setup senior Kaleb Joyner’s 11-yard TD burst.
The Eagles fumbled the ensuing kickoff and SouthWest’s Anthony Mayes, a junior, recovered at Northeastern’s 21-yard line. Two plays later, junior SouthWest quarterback Jackson Lewis pitched a 22-yard TD strike to Porter.
Northeastern handled the adversity and went to work. Hodge rushed for 118 yards on 12 rushes and Riddick rambled for 115 yards on 15 rushes. Hodge darted 15 yards for a TD and Proctor found the end zone on a 9-yard rollout.
“They were the most physical team we have played,” Cobb noted. “For the first time in 14 games, we didn’t win the line of scrimmage on either side.
“We had another fast start and hung around. Credit our guys for staying in it.”
Expressed Northeastern’s Moore: “I told our kids we had to play through the adversity. We were fortunate. Any time you win in the third round of the state playoffs, you’re fortunate.”