It’s not often the past two decades that Miami Northwestern’s football team enters a game considered an underdog.
But many are counting out the Bulls going into a showdown this weekend against nationally-ranked and defending Class 7A state champion Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.
Northwestern, however, doesn’t feel any less confident.
“We never go into a football game feeling like we don’t have a chance,” Northwestern coach Stephen Field said. “These coaches and these kids work too hard all the time to feel that way. We realize we have a good battle in front of us against a very well-coached, talented, nationally-ranked opponent. But I think we’ll shock some people.”
The two storied South Florida programs, who have combined for three national championships since 2007, meet for the first time in a highly-anticipated matchup at 7 p.m. Saturday night at Sun Life Stadium.
Aquinas is ranked in the top 10 in three national polls and expected to make another state championship run this season, which could result in the eighth titles for the Raiders.
Northwestern is trying to return to state-championship status in a county where the No. 1 and 2 ranked teams (Central and Booker T. Washington) in the nation currently reside. The Bulls are also coming off a 10-7 preseason loss to Palm Beach Central that has increased doubts as to whether they can upset the Raiders.
The Raiders opened last season at Sun Life Stadium and beat another Miami-Dade County stalwart, Columbus 38-28. Aquinas trailed early in that game and rallied from an 11-point deficit for the victory.
Aquinas knows it can’t take Northwestern lightly.
“We know we have our hands full, but we’re looking forward to Saturday night.” Aquinas coach Rocco Casullo said. “When you’re playing a Miami-Dade team, you better buckle your chinstrap. We were down 21-10 last year. It was a fight. It was a great game to be in. We know it’s going to be the same way with Miami Northwestern. Those kids aren’t going to back down.”
Field said he did not play several key players in last week’s preseason loss and that his team’s No. 1 priority in was to remain as healthy as possible for Saturday’s matchup.
The Bulls’ offense will be led by senior quarterback Trevis McKinney, whom Field expects big things from this season. Northwestern’s offense will also rely on star athlete and FSU commit Jojo Robinson and junior running back Leon Brown.
They will be tested against a defense that is led by several FBS school prospects including defensive end Anthony Moten and defensive back Al Harris, Jr., who will likely match up with Robinson.
“He’s a very good receiver,” Harris said. “I’m very appreciative of this opportunity to go against a top receiver like him, and I’m going to go full tilt. I pride myself on my coverage, and this will be a huge challenge.”
Northwestern’s defense, led by senior end Michael Smith, will try to contain Aquinas’ running game and put pressure on senior quarterback Wade Freebeck, a first-year starter.
“Starting off the year we’ve got a good opponent in front of us, tough challenge, in a good venue,” Freebeck said. “We’re all looking forward to getting out the jitters and starting this journey off.”
Field knows his team can’t afford any mistakes if it is to win the first game of a schedule that includes three nationally-ranked opponents on a positive note.
“We have to play sound football and minimize our penalties,” Field said. “We feel like we have a good game plan. We can’t worry about what other people think. We understand the magnitude of this game and we’ll be ready.”
Miami Herald writer David Furones contributed to this report.