TARBORO – Quarterback Deon Lavender’s knee touched the Earth, and the party was on.
Students in red T-shirts poured onto the field, blue helmets were held high in the air and cow bells clanged with approval as Southern Nash did something that no team in six years had done: Went into Tarboro and left with a win.
Southern Nash completed an emotional come-from-behind victory at Tarboro, 24-23, overcoming injuries to all of its starting running backs, scoring with just more than two minutes to play and holding off the Vikings in a playoffs-like atmosphere Friday.
“When everybody thinks you can’t win, all your starters in the backfield are out, it’s gotta mean something to you,” Southern Nash coach Brian Foster said.
On Friday, Southern Nash (6-0) played without four running backs who were expected to contribute, yet looked like the Firebirds of old. Southern Nash ran for 250 yards and dominated time of possession, but it was two possessions in the fourth quarter that kept Southern Nash undefeated.
Tarboro (4-2) took a 23-17 lead on Radja Bobbitt’s third touchdown of the day with 8:24 to play, and the Firebirds began on their own 33-yard line.
With a chance to stay undefeated, senior tight end Alonte Thomas said it was about one thing in the Firebirds’ huddle.
“It was just finish,” he said. “With how hard we worked in the summer and in the weight room, we had to finish.”
The Firebirds moved 67 yards in 14 plays and converted three times on third down, capped with Lavender’s one-yard touchdown sneak with 2:06 to play.
Then the Vikings – who had averaged more than 10 yards per play in the first half – couldn’t move Southern Nash’s defense. Quarterback Tobias Pittman was thrown for a loss on first down, then his second-down pass was batted away. Bobbitt was stopped for no gain on third down, and Pittman was stalled two yards short of the marker on fourth down.
With it, Southern Nash lined up in victory formation and ran out the clock.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and that’s what our whole defense did in those four downs,” Southern Nash linebacker Devin Denton said.
Southern Nash went 5-for-7 on third-down conversions in the second half and 8-for-13 on the night.
In addition, the Vikings had 12 men on the field on a key third-and-2 inside the Tarboro 10-yard line on the Firebirds’ decisive touchdown drive, which gave Southern Nash a first down.
“We couldn’t stop them anyway. Everyone now and then, we put together a little spurt when we’d stop them, but we couldn’t consistently get them off the field,” Tarboro coach Jeff Craddock said. “I think they beat us up front. I knew their offensive line was big and good and strong. Everybody knows that. There’s a reason they’re undefeated and we’re not.”
Southern Nash held the ball for more than 19 of the 24 minutes in the first half, yet went into halftime trailing, 15-14.
Two Southern Nash touchdowns were equalled by two big plays by Tarboro. Bobbitt’s first touchdown – a 25-yard run off left tackle – tied the game at seven, then Bobbitt snuck behind four Firebirds and caught a 35-yard touchdown six seconds before halftime.
When Southern Nash was offside on the PAT, Tarboro elected to go for two points, which it earned with Bobbitt’s run.
“We were fortunate to have that drive at the end,” Foster said. “We didn’t take advantage of some of the early stuff we had offered.”
The Firebirds stalled twice inside the Tarboro 30, but took back the lead on Ismael Rodriguez’s 38-yard field goal in the third quarter.
Bobbitt scored again early in the fourth quarter, but the Firebirds said they expected a hard fourth quarter.
“We were focused. We knew this was our hardest challenge of the year, and nothing from this on was going to get easier,” Southern Nash linebacker Kendall Parker said. “We knew we had to get tougher.”
When the Firebirds made key plays in the game’s biggest moments, Denton said it reflected their preparation.
“We had the best week of practice we’ve ever had,” Denton said. “ ... We had to make a statement we wanted this game (Friday).”
Injuries have piled up for Southern Nash, but Parker said it won’t derail the team.
No matter who plays running back, he said, Southern Nash remains unchanged.
“We’ve just gotta pick each other up,” Parker said. “(Injuries have) killed us at running back, but we’ll move whoever we need to move up, and we’re still going to run it down their throat.”
Southern Nash 24
SN 7 7 3 7 – 24
T 7 8 0 8 – 23
SN – RaQuon Blount 26 pass from Deon Lavender (Ismael Rodriguez kick), 7:00
T – Radja Bobbitt 25 run (Franklin Arias kick), 4:38
SN – Richard Hall 3 run (Rodriguez kick), 6:39
T – Bobbitt 35 pass from Tobias Pittman (Bobbitt run), :06
SN – Rodriguez 38 field goal, 2:06
T – Bobbitt 2 run (Bobbitt run), 8:24
SN – Lavender 1 run (Rodriguez kick), 2:06
19 First downs.................9
44 Passing yards..............35
299 Total offense.............199
Rushing – SN: Richard Hall 20-120; Sebastian Oneal 11-43; Mike Portillo 9-35; Clinton Whitaker 8-34; Deon Lavender 7-14; RaQuon Blount 1-4; Zimonia Knight 1-2. T: Radja Bobbitt 14-65; Markese Clapp 4-28; Julian Lee 4-25; Jerod Bennett 1-18; Rayshawn Battle 3-16; Tobias Pittman 3-12.
Passing – SN: Lavender 2-5-1, 44. T: Pittman 1-3-1, 35.
Receiving – SN: Blount 1-26; Hall 1-18. T: Bobbitt 1-35.
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or firstname.lastname@example.org