LILLINGTON — The Northwood Chargers were 0-3. They had lost seven games in a row, dating back to last season. They had been rocked for 157 points over their first three games, all 30-plus-point …
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LILLINGTON — The Northwood Chargers were 0-3. They had lost seven games in a row, dating back to last season. They had been rocked for 157 points over their first three games, all 30-plus-point losses.
Yet it was the defense, of all things, that came alive on Friday night in a 31-7 win at Western Harnett, the first time Northwood had held an opponent under 47 points this season.
“They played much more sound and they understood their coverages better,” Northwood coach Cullen Homolka said.
The Chargers boosted their record to 1-3, while the Eagles dropped to 2-2.
Northwood got off to a blazing start, driving 80 yards in six plays and taking a 7-0 lead with 9:47 to go in the first quarter on a 29-yard Aaron Ross rushing touchdown.
Later in the quarter, Ross found the end zone once again on a 38-yard run.
Those two scores were all the cushion that the Chargers defense would need. With the Eagles pinned back deep in their own territory on the next drive, Northwood partially blocked a punt, which fell to Jalen Mcafee-Marion. The senior fielded the ball at the Western Harnett 20-yard line and ran it in to bring the score to 21-0 with 7:30 left in the second quarter.
“We tackled better, we were in the right place, we played with emotion,” Chargers Defensive Coordinator Dennis Burton said.
The only big play allowed by the Northwood defense came on the next drive, when Tristin Ung connected with Tyrese Jones for an 85-yard touchdown pass with 7:02 remaining in the first half.
With the score 21-7, the Chargers defense was put to the test. Northwood fumbled on the ensuing kickoff return, giving the Eagles the ball at the Chargers’ 25-yard line. But, led by two sacks, the defense forced a turnover on downs.
When Chargers quarterback Jack Thompson threw an interception on the next play, the defense came right back onto the field, at its own 34-yard line, and held Western Harnett to a 39-yard field goal attempt. Dillon Smith’s kick was blocked, preserving Northwood’s 14-point lead into halftime.
“Confidence and momentum’s a real thing,” Burton said, “so anytime you have success you’re going to play better.”
The defense continued to ride its momentum into the second half, coming up with stops on the next two possessions. A turnover on downs for the second stop gave the Chargers great field position, setting up a 28-yard field goal by Max Mekemson to make it 24-7 with 4:28 to go in the third quarter.
Chris Lawson intercepted Ung just over a minute later to give the ball back to Northwood’s offense, which quickly struck for another touchdown. Thompson, who would finish with 232 passing yards, threw a 66-yard pass to Mcafee-Marion to give the Chargers the final points of the game with 2:09 remaining in the third quarter.
Continued pressure from the defense, led by linebacker Will Lake’s consistent penetration into the backfield, resulted in another interception from Ung to open the fourth quarter.
“Will is a great player,” Burton said. “He really played hard for us tonight.”
Northwood’s defense picked up five tackles for loss in the fourth quarter to bring its total to 19 for the game, including 10 sacks. Constantly behind the chains, Western Harnett managed just 50 yards from scrimmage in the second half and only nine first downs in the game.
“We were very physical,” Lake said. “It paid off and we got that win.”
The victory was the first for Homolka and his staff at Northwood, and the first for the program since October 5 of last year.
“It means a lot,” Burton said, “For us to come here and to lose the first three, it was tough, so I’m happy for him.”
With his team gathered in a semicircle around him, Homolka grinned as he addressed his players postgame.
“A win’s a win,” Homolka said to his team in the huddle. “Enjoy them when you get them, because they’re not easy to come by. Congratulations.”
Athletic Director Jason Amy then presented the Chargers first-year head coach with the game ball to the delight of his players.
“It was awesome to get the game ball,” Homolka said. “I’m happy for it, but our kids played their tails off and they deserve all the credit. I just was out there watching.”