For the last heaven knows how many years he’s been doing it, legendary Traz Powell Stadium announcer Willie Wilcox has made one of his signature calls – “Remember, it’s never over till its over.”
Wilcox was at it again on Thursday night. As the Northwestern Bulls and Norland Vikings marched off to the locker room and the Bulls seemingly safely out in front 27-7, there it was again – “It’s never over till its over.”
Turns out Wilcox was right on the money on this night after Norland pulled off one of the most stunning and unlikely comebacks, shocking Northwestern 28-27.
The game-winner came in just as surprising fashion when, on third-and-12, quarterback Alec Carr found a wide open Anthony Johnson behind all Northwestern defenders and hit him in stride. Johnson then outraced chasing Bulls defenders to complete a 65-yard touchdown play with 2:47 left in the game. Kevon O’Connor then cooly drilled the all-important extra point for the game-winner.
“I tell anybody that wants to listen that this is probably the best and toughest district in the state, maybe the country and everybody got to see why out there tonight,” Norland coach Daryle Heidelburg said. “This is a hump we never thought we’d get over and to do it in this fashion, to come all the way back from 20 down at halftime is a real credit to these kids and how much fight they have in them.”
Indeed as Norland players celebrated uncontrollably when the game was over, even walking towards Bulls players as they silently trudged off the field to let them know who was king on this night.
“Coach (Heidelburg) let us have it at halftime,” said linebacker Wayne Barr who had a huge sack of Northwestern quarterback Tutu Atwell on the Bulls final drive leaving them with an impossible 4th-and-28 situation. “He told us to keep fighting no matter what the score was. That we might see these guys again in the playoffs and to let them know that they weren’t going to push us around.”
The irony of Norland’s win is that now, they may not see Northwestern in the playoffs, at least not in the first round.
Going into the evening the Bulls, who have already wrapped up the District 16-6A title, were cemented in the No. 1 position in Region 4-6A while the Vikings were No. 8. A Northwestern win would have likely set up a rematch between the two teams in the first round of the playoffs in two weeks.
Plenty still needs to be sorted out but Norland (5-3) may now move up to No. 7 or even 6 with this win and it remains to be seen if it will cost the Bulls the top spot although unlikely.
“I had been running that pattern all night and was open all the time,” said Johnson of his deep route on the winning score. “Their (Northwestern’s) defense is very aggressive and they like to come up on you and I just slipped behind everybody and couldn’t believe I was that wide open. This is major for us. Beating this team lets the world know that Norland football is back on the map.”
The comeback began on Norland’s opening drive of the second half when the Vikings rammed it right down the throats of the vaunted Bulls defense which simply was not up to par on this night, marching 85 yards in 14 plays and eating up the first eight minutes of the third quarter, Jacquan Denson going over from 11 yards out to make it 27-14.
A tremendous diving interception by Joshua Ancrum of a Tutu Atwell pass in the final seconds of the third quarter set the Vikings up with a short field at the Bulls 35.
Norland’s determination on this night came to the forefront on the ensuing drive when the Vikings not once, but twice had touchdowns called back by holding penalties. Undaunted, Carr, on third-and-goal from the 12, found Blake Veargis for a touchdown and it was 27-21 with 8:26 left.
The Bulls responded with their only good offensive drive of the second half on the next possession. And when Atwell found Nigel Bethel for 20 yards down to the Norland 15, it appeared a score to pull away and stop the momentum was imminent. But a vicious hit on Bethel jarred the ball loose and Larry Smith recovered at the Norland 20 with 4:38 left setting up the eventual game-winning score from Carr to Johnson.
“I’ll let them celebrate this one tonight but not much beyond that,” said Heidelburg whose team will close out the regular season against Mater Academy next week. “We have way too much work in front of us and need to make sure we keep our focus on what’s ahead.”