ACCIDENT — Williamsport’s defense was ferocious and the offense made the big plays when it needed to, as the Wildcats defeated Northern, 21-14, on Friday night at Half-Mile High Stadium in the opening round of the Maryland Class 1A West Region playoffs.
“The score ended up … I thought it would be a touchdown game one way or the other,” said Northern head coach Phil Carr. “We watched a heck of a lot of film this week and knew they were pretty good. They play two triple A schools and they have a thousand kids in their school — their coach and I talked and we’re 400 kids.
“I thought our kids competed. I don’t think we competed with the desire, the fire that we did most of the season. I don’t know why. I can’t answer that. The kids have got to answer that. We know it’s cold, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it. I don’t know. We just didn’t seem like we played with that same emotion that we have. We challenged them at halftime a little bit. We came out and played about the same.”
Quarterback James Snow led the Williamsport offense with 12 of 18 passing for 229 yards. Brady Neff and Logan Startzman were the yard-getters for the offense. Neff had five catches for 129 yards and Startzman had seven catches for 128 yards. Malakai Cunningham completed one pass for 20 yards on a trick play on the final play before halftime. Taj Wagner led the rushing attack with 18 carries for 87 yards while sitting out some of the second quarter and all of the fourth quarter.
“Their size was a big factor,” Carr said. “They went about 265 (pounds) average across the front. We go about 220 across the front, if that, so that was an issue. We couldn’t run the ball real good consistently. We did throw the ball, at times, pretty good. But there was a lot of big plays in that first half.
“Our touchdown was set up by a heck of a bobbled catch and, of course, the interception got us going that drive, so then we score. Then we had them third and like 16, they caught the ball over the middle and run it down there to set them up. So it was some big plays. I don’t think they ran the ball real well in the first half. There were some big plays in the passing game. Second half, they ate up some clock on some drives running the football, but still they came up with some big third-down plays. I think that was kind of big in the game.”
The Wildcats finished 8 of 12 on third downs compared to 5 of 13 for the Huskies, three of which came after Northern started running no-huddle late in the third quarter and into the fourth.
The Huskies got on the board first after Issac Bittinger intercepted a pass to set the Huskies up at the Williamsport 37.
Northern wound up in the end zone four plays later.
Zach Hallenbeck ran three yards on first down before throwing an incompletion on second down.
Hallenbeck went to the air on third down, heaving a pass toward the front of the end zone, which was tipped by a Williamsport defensive back. However, Kaleb Montgomery stuck with it, tipped the ball up with one hand and then hauled in the pass as he fell to the ground, setting the Huskies up with first-and-goal from the six.
On the very next play, Jamison Warnick pounded it in from six yards out. The point-after try was wide right, as Northern led 6-0 with 2:32 to play in the first quarter.
Williamsport responded four plays later. On third-and-11, Snow hit Startzman for an initial gain of 20 yards on a post route, then Startzman broke free and ran the ball down to the Northern six for a 69-yard gain. On the next play, Wagner ran it in from six yards out, following his blockers into the end zone. The Wildcats faked the PAT, with holder Cunningham rolling right and getting into the end zone to give Williamsport an 8-6 advantage with 24 seconds left in the opening stanza.
The teams then traded punts before Northern turned it over on downs and the Wildcats made them pay before halftime. Startzman caught a pair of third-down passes — 15 yards on third-and-13 and 12 yards on third-and-five to set Williamsport up at the Northern three.
After a one-yard run by Brandon Kline on first down, he punched it in from two yards out on the next play with 1:21 showing on the second-quarter clock. Matt Novas booted the PAT, giving the Wildcats a 15-6 lead.
Northern’s ensuing drive stalled just as it crossed midfield as the Wildcats forced and recovered a fumble. Williamsport then took its 15-6 lead into the break as it was only able to get Cunningham’s pass to Neff off before the whistle sounded for halftime.
The teams traded third-and-outs to start the second half before the Wildcats extended their lead to 21-6 on a drive that ate up nearly seven minutes of third-quarter clock. The drive was capped off by a nine-yard pass from Snow to Neff at the 2:26 mark. On the drive, Wagner had third-down converting runs of nine yards on third-and-one and six yards on third-and-five, while Startzman had a 14-yard catch on third-and-four.
The Huskies’ ensuing drive, which carried over into the final stanza, ended on a third-and-five from the Williamsport 26 when Neff intercepted a pass in the end zone.
Northern’s no-huddle offense was able to get another score on the board late in the fourth when Hallenbeck lofted a 17-yard pass to the front right corner of the end zone, which Warnick hauled in for the score. Hallenbeck completed a two-point pass to Anthony Paul to make it 21-14 with 2:26 to play.
The Wildcats recovered the onside kick and were able to run out the clock.
Williamsport (5-5) moves on and will play No. 2 Fort Hill in the next round.
Hallenbeck finished 16 of 27 for 116 yards and was also the Huskies’ leading rusher with 10 carries for 34 yards. He completed passes to six different receivers. Isaac Bittinger hauled in seven for 69 yards.
Hunter Meyers had five carries for 20 yards and Warnick tallied five rushes for 15 and four catches for 24 yards.
“We would have three of our offensive linemen back,” said Carr. “We would lose (Ian) Eggleston and (Garrett) Emory off that line, and they’ve been damn good all year. But if we can replace them, we got the skill kids coming back. We’ll miss Meyers at fullback, but we’ve got the (Ethan) Sebold kid that’s a freshman who’s been playing fullback for us here at the end. We think he can step in and do a nice job.
“But we’ve got a lot of skill kids coming back in that junior class. Of course Jamison, who scored twice, is a 10th-grader. So I like our kids that are coming back. The biggest thing is to get in the weight room. These guys have kind of set a standard of ‘let’s win eight games again.’”
Northern’s season ends at 8-2.
“I told them ‘they can’t take away what we did this season,’” said Carr. “We did a lot of things and went a lot of places that the Northern football has never been before. We had the five shutouts on the season, which is a school record, and that’s only in a nine-game season.”
The Huskies were without leading rusher Jake Rush, who suffered a torn ACL during the 33-14 win over Mountain Ridge on Oct. 18. On the season, Rush, a junior, averaged just under 100 yards per game (99.7) with 79 carries for 698 yards and eight touchdowns. He also had 11 receptions for 134 yards and one touchdown.
“With (Jake) Rush out,” Carr continued, “I knew when that happened back in the Mountain Ridge game, it kind of took away a lot of things we can do offensively. Because Jamison now becomes your Jake Rush, but then we don’t really have a kid that could become Jamison Warnick. We’re not like a Fort Hill where you can plug in a really good guy. You’re dipping out of your jayvees usually and you’re not going to be as good. But we were able to get by a couple games without him. But I knew as we moved along, if we could’ve won this game, you’re still hurting without him because he just makes things happen out there. We just missed him.
“It’s always disappointing in the here and now, but you look back and we had a heck of a season. I’m proud of our kids and the way they played. They got a home playoff game for us for the school, but just didn’t finish the deal, that’s all.”
Follow Staff Writer Kyle Bennett on Twitter @KyleBennettCTN.