Northwest Victorious Over Paint Branch, Advances to Maryland 4A State Title Game

Ethan Cadeaux, Staff Writer

On Friday, November 29, the Northwest Jaguars traveled to Paint Branch High School to face the Panthers in the Maryland 4A state semi-final game, returning to the stadium where the Jaguars had handed the Panthers their only loss on the season, a 31-28 Northwest victory in week six.Led by sophomore quarterback Mark Pierce’s seven total touchdowns (six passing, one rushing), the Jaguars abruptly ended Paint Branch’s season with a 55-36 victory.

Before the game, Jaguars head coach Mike Neubeiser reiterated to his players the same message he has stressed throughout the playoffs. “Dance with the girl that got you here,” he said, meaning to continue doing what you have done to this point, since you (the Jaguars) have been successful so far.

Neubeiser told his team to “approach this like any other game, [the county] still [doesn’t] respect you.”

The Northwest offense seemed to pick up where they left off from the previous week.  On the Jaguars’ opening possession, a long pass from Pierce to senior receiver Josh Gills set up first and goal. Pierce capped the drive by taking the ball up the middle for a one-yard touchdown run.

Yet, the Paint Branch offense, which was averaging over 42 points a game, responded immediately. Paint Branch senior athlete Johnny Littlejohn took a handoff up the middle and outran everyone for a 93-yard touchdown run on the Panthers’ first play of the drive.  After a missed extra point, Northwest was up 7-6.

On the Jaguars’ next drive, Pierce found senior receiver Trint Coulter for a three-yard touchdown reception in the left corner of the end zone, rounding out the first quarter with the Jaguars up, 14-6.

Paint Branch would respond again. Four minutes into the second quarter, Panthers senior quarterback Gaston Cooper completed a nine-yard touchdown pass, marking his 60th total touchdown of the year.  The two-point conversion attempt failed, and Northwest led, 14-12.

Just 29 seconds later, Pierce threw his second touchdown pass on the night, finding junior running back E.J. Lee on a 21-yard wheel route in the back of the end zone.  However, the Panthers countered again, with Cooper finding Littlejohn on a 25-yard touchdown on fourth and seven.  This time, the two-point try was successful, and the Northwest lead was reduced to just one point.

With just over two minutes left in the half, Pierce found Lee again, this time for an eight-yard touchdown reception.  Yet on the first play of the ensuing Panther drive, following a great return by Littlejohn, Cooper found Littlejohn on a 49-yard touchdown strike along the left sideline.  After an unsuccessful two-point try, the Jaguars led, 28-26.

Still, the offensive barrage did not stop. With just 44 seconds left in the half, Pierce found Gills for a 33-yard touchdown reception, Pierce’s fourth touchdown of the night, trying his season high before halftime started.  As time expired, a Panther field goal concluded the half.

Entering the locker room, the Jaguars were only up 35-29.  The first half seemed to set up perfectly for a second-half shootout. For a Jaguar team that has relied on its strong defense all season, this was not the position they wanted to be in.

Both teams had scored more points in the first half against each other than either did in the entire game during their previous meeting.

Coach Neubeiser told his players to treat the rest of the game “like a boxing match.  You jab until you see a cut, then go for the knockout punch,” he said.

Although Paint Branch had already scored more points than any other team against Northwest this season, defensive coordinator Kevin Corpuz stuck by his team at halftime, telling them that “the second half is ours.”

“In the first half, we made a few mistakes on defense that led to very big plays,” coach Neubeiser said.  “Paint Branch is a fast and talented football team, so little mistakes can lead to big plays.”

Coming out of the half, both defenses looked as if they had made many adjustments during the break.  On Northwest’s first possession of the second half, Paint Branch’s defense stopped the Jags on four straight plays from the one-yard line, taking over on downs.  On the ensuing drive, Cooper again connected with Littlejohn, but as Littlejohn was trying to gain some bonus yards, sophomore cornerback Martin Foray knocked the ball out, and the Jaguars recovered.

Just a few plays later, Pierce connected with senior wide receive Matt Watson for a 21-yard touchdown, then connected with Coulter for a two-point conversion, stretching the Jaguars lead to 43-29.

On the ensuing Paint Branch drive, quarterback Cooper scored on a six-yard scramble, and entering the fourth quarter the Jaguars were only up a touchdown, 43-36.

Yet, the Jaguars wouldn’t let it get any closer.  Pierce connected with Watson again for a touchdown, this time for thirteen yards.

The Panthers brought the ball all the way to the Jaguars three-yard line on their next drive, but on fourth and goal, Foray broke up a pass in the end zone.

On the Jaguars’ first play following the turnover, Watson took a jet-sweep handoff and outran everyone for a 93-yard touchdown, putting the Jaguars up 55-36, and putting the game pretty much out of reach.

Just to clinch it, senior linebacker Rasheed Gillis sacked Cooper for a loss of 15 yards on the Panthers’ final possession, forcing a turnover on downs on the next play.  The Jaguars were able to run out the clock from there, defeating the Panthers by a final score of 55-36.

The adjustments the Jaguars made at halftime, both defensively and on special teams, proved to be the reason Northwest prevailed in the end.

“[On special teams] we adjusted by bringing in Diego Melendez to kickoff.  He performed very well, kicking the ball high and away from Johnny Littlejohn,” Neubeiser said.  “Kicking the ball high allowed our coverage teams to cover the kick better because the defenders were able to be right in front of the returner when he caught the ball.”

After allowing 29 points in the first half, the defense deserves a lot of credit for holding the Panthers to just seven second-half points.  Junior linebackers Brendan Thompson and Chuck Anya were major factors in stopping the run, while senior linebackers Samer Manna and Rasheed Gillis applied constant pressure on Cooper.  Anya also provided a key sack to slow down a critical Panther drive.

Senior receiver Josh Gills filled in at defensive back for an injured Rodney Snider in the early part of the second half, and made several pass breakups and tackles.  Sophomore cornerback Martin Foray made many key pass break-ups, and senior safety Luke Pierce made key tackles as well.

The unsung heroes for the Jaguar offense were the offensive line.  Sophomore Tariq Manna, juniors T.J. Patterson, Austin Wickham and Max Hughes, and senior Brandon Hungerford all gave Pierce ample time to throw, and to allow his receivers to get open.  As a unit, the Jaguar offense put up the most points in one game since week one, a 61-0 victory over Magruder.

The Jaguars’ next opponent will be Suitland High School, from Prince George’s County. Northwest will find itself in its usual position of underdog against the undefeated Rams (13-0), but it’s a role the Jaguars, now 11-2, have grown to relish.

Northwest will face Suitland in the Maryland 4A state championship next Friday, December 6, at 7:30 in M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.