A 20-point preseason loss to Booker T. Washington may have been the slap-in-the-face, wake-up call American Heritage needed.
Heritage responded with a pair of wins over national-powers Colquitt County, Georgia, and New Jersey’s Don Bosco in the following weeks before taking a 34-32 victory over a resurgent Northwestern team at Traz Powell Stadium on Friday night.
Heritage had things in cruise control at halftime leading 27-6 but then got a taste of “Bull Pride” in the second half as Northwestern, led by running back Kai Henry (127 yards on 22 carries, two touchdowns) and quarterback Chatarius Atwell (4-of-7, 74 yards, two touchdowns) put on a furious rally, scoring 20 unanswered points in the third quarter and then, trailing by eight with 90 seconds left, cut it to two on a 31-yard Atwell to Roy Livingston touchdown pass.
But the Bulls (2-1), coming off a big win over Columbus last week, were a little too exuberant after Atwell’s score as nearly the entire bench emptied to celebrate with him.
Northwestern was thus assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty forcing them to try the two pointer from the 18.
Atwell’s pass into the end zone for Livingston was easily broken up by Tyson Campbell.
The Patriots (3-0) recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
“Not a good second half for sure,” said Heritage head coach Patrick Surtain. “Just a bunch of dumb penalties and dumb turnovers allowed them to get back in the game. I warned our kids at halftime that that Northwestern program has a lot of pride and does not quit and everybody found out real fast what I was talking about.
“Fortunately we managed to maintain our composure and find a way to come out on top so that’s a plus but we’ve got a lot of cleaning up to do and have to learn to close out opponents.”
The biggest moment of the night came when Heritage quarterback Jason Brown, after the Bulls had cut the lead to 27-26, engineered a huge 67-yard, 15 play drive that culminated with Brown’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Josh Alexander on fourth-and-nine with 4:22 left.
Surtain decided to go for it on the play rather than kick the field goal since Northwestern does not have a placekicker to kick extra points or field goals.
“I did what my coaches always tell me. I took a step up, let it go and trusted my receiver and Josh made a great catch,” said Brown who enjoyed a huge night through the air, finishing 14-for-19 for 253 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for another 53 on 14 carries.
“We made a lot of mistakes in the second half but this win shows how much heart we have and we’re looking forward to big things moving forward.”
“They were set up in a coverage that I knew the play was designed for so I was confident the play would work,” said Alexander. “Jason laid it up there perfectly and I just had to make sure I got a foot down and bring it in.”
The biggest play on the drive was easy. On third-and-13 at his own 30, Brown was about to be sacked by Samuel Brooks which would’ve forced a Heritage punt. But Brown escaped his grasp and took off down the middle for a 15 yard run and first down to keep the drive going.
“I felt the rush and knew I wasn’t going to have time to throw it and just looked for a seem and found one up the middle and took off and it all worked out,” said Brown.
Said Surtain: “Jason showed what kind of player he is on that last drive. Sometimes a game like this comes down to who has the biggest heart and those runs he made on that last drive showed you what that kid is made of. I don’t know if there’s a team in the country that has gone through a four-game gauntlet like we have. We made it through 3-0 but the scary thing is we’ve still go a lot of room to improve.”