Tucker head coach Bryan Lamar was thrilled to be wrong.
He said earlier in the week that being down at halftime of a Tucker-Northside game was a good thing.
This time, it wasn’t. Tucker’s defense made sure Lamar was wrong.
The Tigers made a two-point halftime lead more than stand up, holding Northside to less than 100 yards total offense in the second half for a 22-7 win at Hallford Stadium in a GHSA Class 6A semifinal.
Unlike in the previous meetings, there was no major drama or memorable plays, only Tucker’s defense, which held the Eagles to 191 yards.
Tucker led 9-7 at halftime but came up with a huge play when the Eagles botched a pitchout, and Aaron Sterling grabbed it and went 42 yards for the touchdown with 3:09 left in the third quarter.
The conversion failed, but the Tigers’ lead was 15-7, which was a big margin for a Northside offense that couldn’t sustain much. Northside’s season ends at 11-3, while 13-1 Tucker advances to the Dec. 10 title game.
Tucker made Tobias Oliver’s final game a rough one with its pressure and coverage. Oliver was 10-for-23 for 69 yards and two interceptions, rushing for 99 yards on 19 tries.
Northside got off to a good start, forcing a punt after three plays and moving 69 yards in five plays. Oliver got 50 on the ground and then scored from the 1 at the 8:19 mark of the first quarter.
Tucker answered with a 12-play drive the ended with a 27-yard field goal, aided by a pass interference call that nullified an interception.
The Tigers’ defense started stepping up, and forced two three-and-outs, then got the ball back on Northside’s 28 when Oliver fumbled on the first play after Tucker took the lead on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Xavier Shephard to Joshua Vann with 4:11 left in the first half. They teamed up for a 58-yard scoring play with 5:43 left in the game.
Northside, which watched Tucker miss the point-after kick, had only 108 yards of offense at the half, four fewer than the Tigers. Oliver had minus-6 yards passing, and 76 yards rushing.
Three who mattered
Oliver: The senior had to battle a superb defense, and did manage 168 yards in total offense.
Gerry Vaughn: Tucker’s junior linebacker was among the Tigers all over the place. He finished with double-digit tackles, getting two on consecutive plays twice, reading the option and reading two screen passes (which lost six yards).
Xavier Shephard: Tucker’s quarterback faced some pressure of his own, but was efficient in completing 9-of-15 for 136 yards and keeping the Tigers out of bad plays. They had only one turnover.
Northside went from having momentum to chasing it. Tae Daley simply took the ball from Tucker’s Chris Broadwater after a catch for a short gain. The Tigers had crossed midfield and had a nice little drive going. The Eagles then reached the 47, but couldn’t get a routine pitchout down, and Tucker’s Aaron Sterling grabbed it and went 42 yards for a touchdown and eight-point lead. And with Tucker’s defense having the upper hand on Northside’s offense, eight points was a lot.
Had the answer: Lamar said his defense had faced three top-flight quarterbacks in a row, with Mays’ B.J. Phillips and Harrison’s Justin Fields before seeing Oliver on Friday. Tucker’s defense was prepared for almost everything Northside tried, from the dive plays to Oliver on the option to screen passes. The Tigers rarely allowed Oliver a clean pocket, and he had a few huge scrambles to stay alive. But Tucker refused to let Oliver get in space or the Eagles to get into any groove.
Dandy defenses: Before kickoff, Northside averaged 6 yards per snap and Tucker 8.2. The defenses cut those numbers in half, the Eagles getting 3.3 yards Friday night and the Tigers 4.0. They teamed for only 24 first downs. The Eagles ran two more plays than the Tigers.
A “routine” Northside-Tucker game: The past meetings have all had some sort of play or series that led fans to remember it for a long time, and talk about when there was a rematch. This time, it was a defensive battle with no fourth-quarter drama.
Key numbers: Northside had four turnovers, and Tucker got six points out of them. ... Tucker failed on a point-after kick attempt, a conversion and a 44-yard field goal attempt. ... Through three-plus quarters, Northside’s best starting field position was its own 35. In the first half, the Eagles’ average start was on their own 22.
One of those kinds of plays: Trayvon Willis took handoff to the left and raced to the Tucker 41, only a few minutes after the Tigers went up 9-7 and Northside fumbled it back on first down. But instead of retaining some momentum with a first down on Tucker’s side, a holding call put the Eagles in a second-and-28. What started as a nice answer late in the first half turned out to be something of an omen. Then in the third quarter, Oliver was perfect on a pass to Willis for 25 yards, but Brian Strozier read a play and sent Northside backward for four yards, setting up a punt in Tucker territory.
They said it
Northside head coach Kevin Kinsler: “Typical Tucker. ... We got outplayed. They made plays.”
Tucker’s Lamar: “We had a plan and we got hit in the mouth. We had to go to plan B.”
Kinsler on losing the field position game: “The name of the game was we had to get first downs. We played the whole second quarter on our half of the field. That allowed them to open up their offense a lot more.”
Lamar on the change after Oliver’s 50-yard run that set up Northside’s touchdown: “We started off with a regular 3-3, odd front. They were doing some things different with their blocking scheme against it. We had to go to more of a four-man front, 4-2. We were able to have some success with that.”
Kinsler on the offensive struggles: “We kept shooting ourselves in the foot, uncharacteristically. We did a lot of things we don’t normally do. A lot of that had to do with Tucker. Offensively, we had a lot of miscues. They did a good job of putting pressure on us.”
Lamar on the general defensive plan: “It’s (Oliver) and it’s another back back there, or two, and you’ve got to make sure you’ve got all three (covered). He does a great job of making the right decision. If you don’t take the back, he’s going to give it, and that’s a big play. If you take the back, he’s got the ball in his hand and he’s dangerous, and he can pitch it or he can run it. You’ve got to have people everywhere they’re supposed to be.”
Lamar on how the Tigers’ adjusting defense had so much success corralling Oliver: “Fortunately, we were where we were supposed to be more times than not. He’s a really, really, really good player, and I know he’s going to have a great career at (Georgia) Tech. He’s special.”