Southern Nash never could get comfortable.
The Firebirds had scored a dizzying amount of points in each of its first three games this season, but the Nash Central defense proved to be a problem that wasn’t easily solved.
The Firebirds found the answer, however, and it involved following Jackson Vick in the second half as they held off host Nash Central for a 13-6 win in the Big East Conference opener for both teams.
It was the Bulldogs fast and aggressive defense that held the Firebirds to their fewest points scored all season after averaging more than 46 points per game entering Friday.
Both teams traded punts and stalled drives in the opening quarter. Bulldogs sophomore linebacker Isaiah Draughan was all over the field making plays. He stopped the Firebirds in the backfield on multiple occasions, and helped bottle up that potent Firebirds offense.
“We had to pick it up,” Draughan said of the defense. “We all wanted to get better, and we read our keys and did a good job. We fixed things that we’ve been working on for a long time.”
It wasn’t until 3:23 remained in the first half when Southern Nash broke through and scored the game’s first points.
Running back Sammy Gandy scored on a 25-yard rushing touchdown where he broke at least four tackles before diving into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
“We knew we had to play fast on defense to stop (Gandy) and (Vick),” Bulldogs coach Chris Lee said.
Vick, who is committed to N.C. State, was held quiet for much of the first half. But that changed as he broke through in the second half as the Firebirds rode their top player.
He showed a different gear in the second half as he gained 90 yards in his first nine rushes. Vick had a special guest in attendance as N.C. State coach Dave Doeren spent the first half watching from the Southern Nash sideline.
The game featured a scary moment when Nash Central lineman Zhamod Whitaker suffered a leg injury with 4:20 remaining in the third quarter. The nature of the injury forced Whitaker to remain on the field in wait for an ambulance to arrive. The crowd was kneeling players were mostly silent as everyone waited for help to come.
The game was stopped for nearly 40 minutes as training staffs at the game tending to the player.
Nash Central found the scoreboard when play resumed. Running back Justus Staten took a handoff and raced 53 yards for a touchdown to cut the Southern Nash lead to 7-6 after the extra-point try was blocked.
It was Vick’s turn, next.
The senior showed off his agility and top-end speed when he rushed for a 57-yard touchdown on the third play of the Firebirds’ drive. Vick ran out wide to his right, then cut inside three different times back toward the middle of the field, finding well-blocked gaps each time.
Vick showed off his speed after the third cut and out-raced a chasing Bulldogs defense for a 13-6 lead and the exclamation point on a road win. The score came on his ninth rush of the second half. He ran seven times in the Firebirds’ opening drive of the second half that ended in downs at the Nash Central 15.
Vick finished with 127 yards and now has eight on the season. He has scored at least one touchdown in every game, and has rushed for at least 100 yards in three games.
Nash Central has allowed 6, 42, 3 and 13 points in its four games this season as the defense is rounding into a formidable unit. Just a lopsided loss to a Smithfield-Selma team that runs a fast spread offense is the only hiccup for the Bulldogs this season.
“Defensively, that was probably one of the best games we played since I’ve been here,” Lee said. “To hold a team that’s averaging almost 50 points to two touchdowns is awesome. My defensive coaches did an excellent job, and my linebackers in the middle read keys better and we tackled better.
“(Draughan) played two excellent games in a row. I told the guys there’s no moral victories, but we showed up tonight and I hope that will carry over to next week and down the road.”