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AJ defense shuts down ground game and Knights in region opener, 28-0

Posted: September 18, 2017 2:56 p.m.
Updated: September 19, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

NORTH CENTRAL’S D’MITRI ROBINSON (18) drags Andrew Jackson quarterback TadMcCown down for a five-yard loss in Friday’s game. NC teammate Matthew Littlefield (51) is coming in to lend assistance.

KERSHAW --- Its starting quarterback and a chief playmaker on both sides of the football each watching from the sidelines in street clothes and being thrown for minus (-19) yards in offense, North Central could have been in a far worse situation than the 14-0 halftime deficit which the Knights found themselves against Andrew Jackson.

The host Volunteers took away NC’s running game --- minus (-21) yards on 16 first half carries  --- while shutting down the passing lanes in the opening 24 minutes. Things would get better for the Knights in the second half but they were unable to find their way into the end zone in a 28-0 loss Friday night on the newly installed FieldTurf carpet in Kershaw.

The defeat dropped Tyronne Drakeford’s squad to 1-3 the season and 0-1 in Region 4-AA. It also led to the first-year NC head coach being ready for senior quarterback Bubba Williamson to return after sitting out this one while in concussion protocol.

“It was tough. It was tough,” Drakeford said of his team’s offensive game plan with Williamson not behind center. “We had to shorten up a lot of things.

“When you lose a guy like Bubba, it’s tough. But my young guy (Austin Bowers) played as good as he could. We just didn’t get a lot of protection for him.”

With Williamson not available, the Knights started Bowers at quarterback and after a bumpy beginning, the sophomore ended up completing seven passes for 144 yards in the face of an unrelenting AJ defense which sacked Bowers three times while getting to the quarterback and the other NC ball carriers either at or behind the line of scrimmage 20 times in 28 rushing attempts on the evening.

The Volunteers’ athletic and aggressive front seven gave the young NC offensive line fits all night long in pushing back the visitors for minus (-20) yards on 28 carries.

“(AJ) was just daring us to throw the ball,” Drakeford said of the Volunteers’ (2-2, 1-0 in 4AA) defensive strategy. “I think the reason they did that was primarily because they knew that we could not hold off their front four. They were bringing pressure and it’s tough to either run or, throw the ball when it is like that.”

While its offense was trying to get its sea legs, the NC defense squashed AJ’s first drive with Tyler Faulkenberry picking off a Volunteer pass in his own end zone with his momentum carrying the NC senior back onto the playing field at the one.

The NC special teams answered the call later in the first quarter as an AJ muffed punt landed in the arms of the Knights’ Markell Portee at the NC 47. Another three-and-out would return the ball to the Vols and their Wing-T offensive attack.

Keeping the ball on the ground, NC used a 19-yard run from freshman Kaleb Haven for a first down at the NC 21. Haven, who ran for 115 yards on 16 carries, then went for 11 more on first down. Freshman O.J. White did the rest as he went for eight yards on first down before bouncing right and going into the end zone for the game’s first score which came at the 10:46 mark of the second quarter.

The hosts’ defense gave the ball back to their offense by stacking up NC tailback Patrick Carter for a loss of two on a second and one carry from the AJ 42 with 7:45 left before halftime.

With Haven finding seams in the NC defense on carries which went for 16, six and four yards, the Vols had a first down at the Knights’ 24. Lamont Nelson did the rest as he took the handoff from quarterback Tad McCown and dashed 24 yards into the end zone to make it 14-0 in a half which ended with that same score after AJ’s Avery Funderburk saw his 47-yard field goal try sail wide right.

As hard as yards were to come by for his team’s offense which punted four times on their first five offensive series, Drakeford said the Knights could have been in far worse position than trailing by only two touchdowns at the break. The alterations which the NC staff made centered on changes try and derail AJ’s Wing-T attack.

“The adjustments we made were on defense and trying to slow down their running game as opposed to our offensive side,” he said. “We were making a few changes on our (offensive) line.”

NC’s first scoring threat came two plays into the second half when freshman safety Shyheem Shropshire came up with a tipped pass at his own 40 which he returned to the AJ 26. Three plays later, AJ returned the favor with a Justin Stevens interception at his own nine.

On the move over land, again, AJ traveled 86 yards in 10 plays with Nelson’s 31-yard carry on which he hurdled over defenders, giving the hosts a first down at the NC 20. A 17-yard White carry set the ball at the three with Nelson capping the nearly five-minute march with a one-yard carry in which he extended the ball over the goal line for the 21-0 lead with 4:52 showing on the third quarter clock.

Bowers would find his groove in the second half.

Trailing, 21-0, the sophomore found Shropshire with a 46-yard catch and run which included a huge downfield block from Portee as the Knights had a first down at the AJ 31. Again, however, the Volunteer defense stiffened as a fourth down running play on fourth and 16 from the 37 went for naught.

Bowers, who was taken out of the game on two occasions due to cramping, led another scoring threat after the NC defense forced a punt which gave the ball to the visitors at their own 32 with 67 ticks left in the third quarter clock.

Bowers spotted Avante’ Reynolds over the middle for a gain of 11 yards on first down before hitting Esteban Rodriguez on the left side of the field for a gain of 36 to the AJ 26. Another 16-yard completion to the 10 ended in a lost fumble as Haven scooped up the loose ball at the Volunteers’ 10 in the next-to-last play of the third quarter.

“He got a little more confident and a little more comfortable with what was going on,” Drakeford said of Bowers’ progression through the game. “At the same time, we have to be able to hold up along the front line just a little longer.”

That would be the Knights’ final foray into enemy territory in a game in which AJ did some window-dressing with a seven-yard Haven touchdown run with 3:34 left in the contest to make it 28-0.

NC will step out of conference play on Friday, traveling to meet Great Falls in a game in which Williamson is expected to return to the fold.

“It will be great having him back (this) week, I can promise you that,” Drakeford said of the return of his team’s starting quarterback.

Knight Lights: There was a scary scene with 5:01 left in the game when Portee went up for a pass and was hit on the play by an AJ defender. The 6-foot-3 wide out lied motionless on the turf before being taken off by stretcher with what was initially thought to be an injury to his ribs … Bowers finished the night hitting on seven of his 20 pass attempts for 144 yards. Faulkenberry, completed one of his four attempts which went for four yards as NC threw for 148 yards while the ground game had minus (-20) yards on 28 carries.


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