WARNER ROBINS -- Northside’s defense dominated in the fourth quarter. But Tucker’s scored.
Tucker senior defensive end Justin Rivers caught a fumbled ball out of mid-air and returned it the length of the field for a stunning touchdown as the top-ranked Tigers advanced to the championship game of the GHSA Class AAAA playoffs with a 17-16 win over Northside on Friday at McConnell-Talbert Stadium. Tucker will be seeking its second state title in four years when it squares off with Lovejoy on Friday at the Georgia Dome.
“Northside is a storied program,” Tucker head coach Franklin Stephens said. “It was a great game, and fortunately, Tucker found a way to win this year.”
Stephens spoke while receiving congratulations from former Northside head coach Conrad Nix. It was Nix’s Eagles who beat Tucker in another semifinal thriller in 2007. On Friday, it was current Northside head coach Kevin Kinsler who spoke on his team’s behalf.
“I’m very proud of our kids and the way they really fought,” Kinsler said, just days after suffering the death of his father. “And I just praise God for the kids and for the effort they gave. Sometimes the ball bounces against you, and you can’t do anything about it.”
With a little more than 4:30 left in the game, Northside fans were searching for Dome tickets. The Eagles had rallied to take a 16-10 lead and had the ball at the Tucker 2-yard line, about to drive home the decisive score. But Northside senior running back Marte Polk lost the ball as he moved toward the end zone. The ball popped into Rivers’ hands, and he raced 100 yards for the tying touchdown. Junior place-kicker Steven Duffy converted to put the Tigers’ on top.
“I just came in and did my job,” Rivers said. “Just find the ball and go to it. It’s just the love of the game.”
The fumble was the fourth of the night for the Eagles (13-1). The others came in the first half. They weren’t as costly but did prevent Northside from establishing any offensive rhythm. Despite Polk’s 93-yard touchdown run that opened the scoring, the Eagles trailed 10-7 at halftime.
In the opening half, Tucker ran for 162 yards. The Tigers produced seven first downs and several long runs. Senior Jordan Landry’s 31-yard scoring run contributed to Tucker’s first half lead.
Northside, however, clamped down in the second half. The Eagles held Tucker to just 31 yards rushing on 21 attempts after intermission.
Finally, the Eagles went back on top at 14-10 when Miguel Williams scored on a 10-yard run on the second play of the fourth quarter. Northside turned things over to its defense at that point.
The Tigers had three total fourth-quarter possessions, netting no first downs and minus four yards of total offense. Tucker took a safety out of punt formation with 5:01 left in the game. That pushed Northside’s lead to 16-10, but kept the Tigers within striking distance.
“We got lucky on that,” Stephens said. “We had sent the punt team out there, but then there was a timeout. One of the coaches suggested we take the safety because we still needed a touchdown.”
The decision seemed moot when A’Donis Hampton caught a 45-yard pass from Northside quarterback Jack Montgomery on the ensuing possession. But Hampton was forced out of bounds at the two, setting up the decisive fumble sequence.
The Eagles had two more chances to take the lead back, but both drives ended near midfield. Montgomery was intercepted by Juwann Williams in the closing seconds, leading to celebration on the Tucker sideline.