WARNER ROBINS — Facing its toughest test of the year to date, Northside’s maturing offensive line passed with flying colors.
Bolstered by its physical front five, the top-ranked Eagles rushed for 360 yards and defeated Thomas County Central 34-14 in a battle for first place in GHSA Region 1-AAAA.
“We just came off the ball and hit them,” junior tackle D.J. Williams said. “It started with No. 99.”
The Jackets’ highly touted defensive end Ray Drew was not much of a factor. Northside ran at, around and past Drew all night. As a final statement, Eagles’ junior Marte Polk broke a Drew tackle for the game’s final score.
Northside ball carriers gashed the Yellow Jackets 13 times for runs of 10 or more yards. Quarterback Briar Van Brunt led the attack with 175 yards and a touchdown on 11 rushes. Tailback Shaquille O’Neil added another 11 carries for 91 yards and a score.
“We came off the ball hard,” senior tackle Brian Layfield said. “Get on the block and stick with your man and give the skill guys a big ‘ol hole to run through.”
The Eagles’ line has been a work in progress this year after graduating five starters from their 2009 team, according to line coach Mark Stewart.
“They keep working hard. It takes time to get all five guys working together,” he said. “I think they’ll continue to improve.”
Northside scored touchdowns on its first two possessions.
O’Neil had a 6-yard run to cap a nine-play, 73-yard drive for starters. After the defense got the ball back, Van Brunt connected with flanker Stephon Cross for a 16-yard pass play to finish a drive of 10 plays and 79 yards.
With the exception of a fumbled snap before the touchdown pass, the Eagles’ offense was crisp.
“Us being at a faster tempo was a big part of the plan, and we’ll keep trying to do that,” Van Brunt said.
Northside (6-0) led 14-0 at halftime, but the lead could have been larger. Place-kicker Isaac Rivera missed field goals tries of 39 and 48 yards. The freshman recovered to make two field goals in the second half.
Thomas County Central produced 294 yards of total offense, but all of quarterback Eric Dodson’s 85 passing yards came in the game’s final six minutes.
The Jackets best drive of the night ended in an 8-yard Dodson run that temporarily reduced Northside’s lead to 17-7 with 5:38 left in the third quarter.
Northside finally put the game away with 6:29 remaining. One play after Taz Thomas returned an interception 30 yards to the Thomas County Central 6, Van Brunt burst up the middle to give the Eagles a 27-7 lead.
Dodson led Thomas County Central with 65 yards on 15 carries. Curtis Brooks rushed 15 times for 61 yards and a late touchdown.