Warner Robins – Hold a team to four first downs, almost half as many rushing yards as you get and nearly a quarter of the passing yards, and one would have to like one’s chances.
But not for Valdosta. Not this year.
In a matchup of offensively challenged teams, Valdosta kept Northside’s offense out of the end zone at McConnell-Talbert Stadium.
Nobody scored a touchdown on offense, and a touchdown after a fumbled punt snap was enough as Northside got past Valdosta 16-7 in the Region 1-AAAAAA opener for both teams.
“In a game like this, with the defenses (teams) are playing, you don’t try to play to keep from losing, but you play smart,” Northside head coach Kevin Kinsler said. “It’s just a matter of one mistake, one mistake, one mistake.”
There was little movement between the tackles for either team, Valdosta (2-5 overall) averaging 3.1 yards a play and Northside all of 1.9, a yard rushing for the Wildcats and 1.3 for the Eagles (6-1).
“I really thought this was going to be a 6-3 or 2-0 game,” Northside head coach Kevin Kinsler said. “I really did. I knew it was going to be like this.”
Each team had two first downs in the first half, during which Valdosta ran the ball all of four times for a negative 13 yards.
One of those was taking a knee to end the half.
The Wildcats came out throwing.
“Too much, in my opinion,” Valdosta head coach Alan Rodemaker said. “Looking back, we didn’t feel comfortable about running the ball against this defense.”
Valdosta was picked off four times, and the Eagles did anything with only one, and it was the dagger.
“We knew it would be a field position game, so we couldn’t throw interceptions,” Rodemaker said. “You lose field position, and they’ve got a good kicker.”
Northside was flagged for an illegal block on a punt and lost 15 yards, but Cory Munson then boomed the punt from the Eagles’ 27 down to the 5. A running back pass gained 57 yards and put the Wildcats on the Northside 31, trailing only 9-7 with 100 seconds left in the game.
But Tubby McCall snagged a tipped pass and returned it 79 yards for the clinching touchdown with 1:25 left.
“We never got going,” Rodemaker said. “We’re pathetic offensively. It’s hard on our kids, because (Northside) didn’t score an offensive touchdown.”
Quarterback Hunter Holt returned from a collarbone injury for Valdosta, which also played Jude Ard and James Perry at quarterback. Holt moved the Wildcats a bit in the second half, but Northside’s relentless pressure continually stepped up to stop Valdosta, including for a sack and loss of seven on third and 13 after the Wildcats crossed midfield with about four minutes left, forcing a punt.
And there were 13 punts between the two teams.
Northside mounted the game’s first drive, so to speak, after Daniel Neal’s nice punt return put the Eagles on Valdosta’s 45. The Eagles eventually reached the 15 – courtesy of their two first-half first downs – and got a 32-yard field goal from Munson, who has been huge for the Eagles all year, about three minutes into the second quarter.
Northside’s defense sent Valdosta back 12 and 7 yards on the next two plays and got an interception, but went three and out. The game’s next first down didn’t come until 10 scrimmage snaps into the third quarter.
Valdosta made the most of its lone interception, Desmond Johnson returning it 24 yards for the Wildcats’ only score, with 3:04 left in the first half for a 7-3 lead that made it to halftime and almost through the third quarter.
Munson’s punt died on the six, and then Wildcats punted from the seven, but the snap was dropped and covered by Maulik Winfield in the end zone for a Northside touchdown with 13.4 seconds left in the third. It missed the PAT and led 9-7 until the late interception return.
“I think the kids have figured out we’re good enough to win games in the region,” Rodemaker said. “We’ve just got to play 48 minutes."