Through three weeks of the football season, it’s probably safe to say Northern’s defense has held up its end in contributing to the Patriots’ 3-0 start.
Northern surrendered just six points in its season opener at Calvert, then had shutouts until late in the fourth quarter in each of the next two weeks, including its 8-6 win at La Plata on Thursday night in which the Warriors did not score until the game’s final play.
But as Northern walked back to the bus, it did not necessarily look the part of a jubilant, still-unbeaten team. After a game where the Patriots struggled to put points on the board, it was clear there is work to be done.
“A win’s a win, but we’re not executing on offense,” Northern head coach Steve Crounse said. “It’s a little bit frustrating. We moved the ball, get down to the red zone. We’re just not finishing drives off.”
One such drive, spanning the final four minutes of the third quarter and first 2 1/2 of the fourth saw the Patriots march from their own 20-yard line to the La Plata 15. But after losing a yard on first down from the 15, Northern promptly moved back as far as the 35 due to penalties. Then, on fourth-and-28, a touchdown pass from Rex Fleming to Luke Wooldridge was scrubbed by offsetting penalties and Fleming’s completion to Anthony Gonzalez on the ensuing play fell three yards short of first-down yardage.
Fortunately for Northern, a La Plata fumble recovered by Northern’s Gabe Fisher two plays later set the team up at La Plata’s 9. R.J. Dennis rushed eight yards to the doorstep on first down, while Fleming finally broke the scoreless tie on the 1-yard plunge a play later. Dennis then rushed in for a successful 2-point try to give the guests an 8-0 lead with 8 minutes 41 seconds remaining.
La Plata’s subsequent drive saw the hosts drive from their own 37 to the Northern 23. But the Warriors came away empty when they were unable to convert on fourth-and-2 from the 23. After forcing Northern to a three-and-out, La Plata’s offense did get one more chance.
Starting at Northern’s 49 after a relatively short punt with 1;49 still on the clock, La Plata (1-2) was able to advance into the red zone before ultimately being faced with one final play from the Northern 23. Northern’s Jake Purcell sacked Warriors quarterback JT Phillips on the play, seemingly ending the game with the clock showing all zeroes.
But an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty gave La Plata half the distance to the goal and one additional play and the Warriors did not waste it.
Phillips connected with Dustin Burch on an 11-yard touchdown pass to pull the hosts to within a 2-point conversion of overtime. But Northern’s defense denied La Plata’s rushing attempt to finally bring an end to the game.
“I think the team played well,” Northern defensive standout Alex Shilling said. “I think we have to work on some stuff on offense, but the defense played really well. I was really proud of the defensive play, especially Cam Cole and Jake [Purcell]. They played really well tonight.”
The hosts came up short, but it was certainly not due to any lack of desire or effort, according to La Plata head coach John Lennartz.
“It was an extremely hard-fought game and our kids fought until the last play,” Lennartz said. “We scored on the final play of the game. You can’t ask for anything more from a group of football players. They played until the last play. We got a chance on the penalty and we took advantage and scored. We just weren’t able to get the three yards on the point after. These kids represented themselves as well as we can expect as far as the effort and the intensity.”
For La Plata, which is next scheduled to play at Westlake at 7 p.m. Friday against a Wolverines team that lost on the final play itself to St. Charles 12-6, it was the second heart wrenching finish in as many weeks, as the Warriors fell in overtime to Chopticon in the season’s second week. Lennartz is hopeful that his team will be able to start shifting the close calls into their favor in the weeks to come.
“There’s no quit. That’s impressive,” Lennartz said. “Last week we went to overtime with Chopticon. There’s no quit. It’s just a matter of, eventually the football gods are going to smile on us and we’re going to get a break at the right time and in the right place and things will go our way. Right now we’re just coming up that half step short, that one play short. We make an extra block here or a ball gets tipped. ... Hopefully we get to the point where those things start happening. The way we do that is to stay focused on what we need to do, focus on the details and hopefully at some point the breaks will start bouncing our way and we’ll get this ship in the right direction.”
Northern will host Great Mills (0-3) at 7 p.m. Friday against a Hornets team that fell to Lackey 49-14 after leading 14-7 after one quarter, hoping not just to add another win to its season total but feel more satisfied with the overall effort instead of relying primarily on the defense again.
“The defense is playing lights out,” Crounse said. “They’re doing a great job. They’re really the reason why we’re 3-0 right now.”