Miami Northwestern was headed for a more than three touchdown margin of victory early in the fourth quarter on Friday night.
But that’s not how most games between the Bulls and the Miami Central Rockets are decided.
That’s not dramatic enough.
So the seemingly lifeless Rockets woke up over the final 10 minutes and had one last chance to reclaim their place atop this storied rivalry.
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But Central quarterback Tijuane Morten’s pass toward the end zone was broken up near the goal line as time expired and Northwestern hung on for a 24-18 victory in a Region 4-6A semifinal at Traz Powell Stadium.
The Bulls (9-2) beat Central for the third consecutive time, but it was their first postseason victory in the series since 2008 — the last time Northwestern advanced to the state finals.
Northwestern will try to move a step closer to that goal next week when it faces one final challenger from its district — Miami Carol City — at 7:30 p.m. next Friday at Traz.
“God is smiling on us this season,” Northwestern coach Max Edwards said. “Central showed why they’re five-time state champions and they never gave up. Some of these kids are relatives and know each other so well. This is why this rivalry is so special.”
The Bulls broke a nine-game losing streak to Central last season with a 45-44 double overtime victory.
Before Northwestern won last season, Central had won four consecutive state titles and five in a six-year span during which it advanced to the state final every season.
The Rockets had won nine in a row and 10 of the previous 12 meetings before that loss.
Northwestern dominated the majority of a 21-7 victory on Oct. 20 to clinch the District 16-6A title.
On Friday, the Bulls looked like they had crushed Central’s spirit after taking a 24-0 lead when quarterback Tutu Atwell scored from 26 yards out with 10:22 left in the fourth. This came moments after Northwestern executed a successful onside kick, opting to go for the chance to put the game out of reach.
Central (9-3), which had won its past three postseason games against Northwestern, answered quickly when Lexington Joseph broke loose for a 43-yard touchdown run that was followed by a Morten two-point conversion run.
The Rockets’ defense forced a punt and their offense drove quickly and scored again when Morten found Zeryus Coleman for a 7-yard touchdown pass. Morten ran in the two-pointer again and suddenly it was a one-score game at 24-16.
Central regained possession after another Northwestern punt, but that’s when its defense yielded no more.
Nigel Bethel intercepted a deep pass by Morten and was downed at his own 2-yard line. After a three-and-out, Northwestern took an intentional safety in order to take a free kick and back up Central with 31 seconds left.
But James Cook returned the kick to Northwestern’s 35 with 25 seconds to go.
The Rockets moved the ball inside the 10, but the Bulls’ secondary made the game-saving play to hang on.
“I told the defense that this was our game,” junior Calijah Kancey said. “We couldn’t let up.”
Kancey had two sacks and several tackles for loss as Northwestern’s defense once again limited Central’s running game throughout the first three quarters and to only 86 yards overall.
Northwestern running back Bo Kendrick led the Bulls on the ground with 62 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
The Bulls also surprised Central with a trick play in which Divaad Wilson caught a lateral pass from Atwell and then hit Derrick Davis downfield for a 55-yard touchdown pass to give Northwestern a 14-0 lead.
“We always practice those two-minute drills especially on defense and this was huge for them to hang on,” Atwell said.
“This feels good, man. We are back. ‘The West’ is back.”