They might not be in the same district or even the same classification anymore. But that didn’t mean the long-standing rivalry between Central and Northwestern was any less intense.
There was still neighborhood bragging rights on the line when the Rockets and Bulls went at it like two prize fighters in a ring and turned in a classic.
When it was over, in a first half thoroughly dominated by both defenses before the second half exploded into big plays, it was Northwestern that overcame a 14-point third quarter deficit to knock off Central 30-20 before a packed house at Traz Powell Stadium.
It was also a night of who’s who on the sidelines as the game included University of Miami coach Manny Diaz, who spent the first half on both sidelines, and Antonio Brown, who hung out behind the south end zone.
After Central (5-2) scored on a 65-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second half to go up 14-0, the Bulls answered with 23 unanswered points.
The biggest play came with 5:39 left when Bulls quarterback Taron Dickson dropped back and found Marcus Fleming, who made a remarkable catch blanketed by Central defender Ricky Wright and fell into the end zone for a 44-yard touchdown to make it 23-14.
The Rockets responded with just 3:35 left when quarterback Katravis Marsh scored from 2 yards out on a keeper to cut the Bulls’ lead to 23-20.
But Northwestern had an answer in the form of running back Nathaniel Noel. Held in check all night long, Noel came up huge on the next drive when he broke loose for a 35-yard run to the Rockets’ 19 and then squirted right up the middle for a 19-yard score on the next play with 2:01 to play to clinch it.
“God was smiling on the Bulls tonight,” coach Max Edwards said. “We understand how good a team Central is, so for us to fall behind by 14 against a team like that and just keep battling the way we did says everything you need to know about our kids.”
It wasn’t just about Noel either. The Bulls’ victory was in large part thanks to a huge performance by the Northwestern defense. Other than two big scoring plays by the Rockets, Central went virtually nowhere on offense all night, especially on the ground. Four Rockets running backs were held to a total of 27 yards rushing on 16 carries.
“We came in with one thing in mind tonight and that was to stop the run,” said defensive end Wati Huggins, who recorded two tackles and was in on a dozen tackles. “When we got down 14, it meant nothing to us. We love it when people give up on us because that’s when we pride ourselves on coming together like family, and everybody saw what we were capable of tonight.”
Northwestern (5-2) thought it had stunned the Rockets on the first play of the game when Noel bolted 77 yards for a touchdown. But in a recurring them that has haunted Northwestern all season and continued to do so on Friday night, there was a flag on the ground. The play was nullified when the Bulls were flagged for sideline interference.
The rest of the first quarter was dominated by both defenses before Central finally broke through early in the second quarter and it came out of nowhere.
After Rockets quarterback Katravis Marsh found Shamar Zaragoza for a short 8-yard gain, he dropped back and lofted a perfect strike to a streaking Yulkeith Brown down the sidelines for a 55-yard touchdown with 9:02 left in the second quarter.
Two plays after the ensuing kickoff, it appeared Northwestern had gotten the equalizer when Noel broke through a wide open hole in the middle and sprinted down the middle for a 70-yard score. But there it was again, a flag on the ground. The Bulls were hit for an illegal chop block and were doing something a few plays later they did seven times in the first half — punt.
When they went to the locker room at halftime, the Bulls had been held to just 50 yards of total offense including 3 yards on the ground and three first downs.
“I’m not going to lie, the first half was frustrating getting those two long scores called back, but what we’re all about at this program is sticking together as a family no matter how many things go wrong,” said Noel, who finished with 99 yards on 19 carries, 82 of which came in the fourth quarter. “When they went up 14, we didn’t blink. We knew what we were capable of doing. That last drive? Give it up for my O-line, I love those guys, they blew open some big holes, and I just ran through them.”
Said Edwards: “I’ve been telling anybody that will listen that I think Nathaniel Noel is one of the best backs in the state of Florida. We needed him on that last drive and you saw what he was capable of doing. He took that offense and just put it on his back on that last drive.”