WARNER ROBINS -- Isaiah Johnson never flinched.
“I had faith the whole time,” Northside’s big senior defensive tackle said. “I never doubted my teammates.”
Faith was nevertheless tested after Northside watched a nice second-quarter lead -- boosted in part by two blocked punts -- turn into a third-quarter deficit with momentum on the visitors’ side.
But Northside came up with Northside football and controlled the ball for all but 70 seconds of the fourth quarter for a 30-21 win Friday night over Dalton in a GHSA Class AAAAA second-round game at McConnell-Talbert Stadium.
The Eagles will host Glynn Academy, a 31-21 winner over Creekside, in the quarterfinal.
Sophomore quarterback Tobias Oliver again was big in the second half with decision-making and playmaking, with the Eagles taking great advantage of place-kicker Justin Alonso’s accuracy for three huge field goals.
“I don’t want to single out any one guy, because I’m proud of the way they all competed,” said Northside head coach Kevin Kinsler, whose team improved to 11-1. “There were a lot of guys making Tobias’ plays possible by gutting it out and manning up and getting it done.”
Dalton quarterback Payton Veraldi came alive in the second quarter to spark the Catamounts, throwing for two touchdowns and 140 yards in the opening half. The Catamounts turned a 17-0 deficit into only 17-14 at halftime.
“We know our passing offense was our strength coming into this game,” Dalton head coach Matt Land said. “But we knew that if we came out right off the bat and just started throwing the ball that there would be a lot of adjustments they had made that they would have the opportunity to work through.
“So we wanted to try to establish a little bit of a run and try to draw them up into their defense and build them a little bit of a comfort level.”
The Eagles had a weak possession to open the third quarter, but the Catamounts fumbled the punt, and Chris Haughton recovered. Dalton’s defense, led all night by Eder Mora in particular, held Northside to a 41-yard Alonso field goal for a 20-14 Eagles lead.
Veraldi was at it again, passing the Catamounts 75 yards on three plays, finding Zek Cobb open on a deep slant for a 29-yard touchdown. Kiko Rodriguez’ kick gave the Catamounts a 21-20 lead with 6:15 left in the third.
Northside took over on its 21 with 1:22 remaining in the third and kept it simple.
Desean Dinkins got 21 on third down, then Oliver found TJ Anderson for 11 on third-and-10. The Eagles stalled again deep, and Alonso was on from 21 yards, and the Eagles retook the lead 23-21 with 7:32 left in the game.
Veraldi missed on two passes and then got only a yard another, punting after a 61-second possession.
The Eagles went back to their forte. Willie Jordan, who had 151 yards on a physical night, ran eight times on the 12-play drive that ended with Oliver keeping from 1 yard out with 52 seconds left.
Kam Burnett picked off Veraldi on the first play after that to seal it.
Oliver finished with 146 yards on 16 carries with three touchdowns. Veraldi passed for 232 yards, but the Catamounts managed only 56 yards on the ground.
“We just got tired,” Land said. “We put ourselves in a position where we knew what we couldn’t do was get behind the sticks and allow them to just basically use their size. We couldn’t ever outpace them.”
Kinsler was thrilled with the defensive stop after Alonso’s fourth-quarter field goal.
“That was a huge stop by our defense right after we scored to get the ball right back in the offense’s hands,” he said. “I can’t say enough about how our offense ate up the clock. That was huge, eating up the fourth quarter.”
Northside took advantage of some quality plays and Dalton mistakes to take a 17-0 lead.
Johnson recovered a fumble on Dalton’s 15, but the Eagles stalled and took a 26-yad Alonso field goal.
Then Jordan Bowdry blocked a punt, and the Eagles took over on the Catamounts’ 33. This time, Northside converted it to a touchdown, Oliver rolling right and go to a wide open left side for a 32-yard score.
The Catamounts finally got a first down, but ended up with another blocked punt, this time by Johnathan Morrill, setting up Northside on Dalton’s 40. Oliver kept on the option and broke two tackles for the 23-yard score.
Alonso’s kick gave the Eagles a 17-0 lead with 9:29 left in the half.
Momentum changed in an odd way.
Tyler Noland caught a short pass and appeared to fumble, Northside’s Tyree Williams covering it around the 25. But officials ruled Dalton still had the ball.
Northside players and coaches were on the field, stunned and angry and arguing. Dalton tried to get a play off to get a penalty, but the Eagles were rewarded a timeout after the 7-yard first-down gain.
It sparked the Catamounts, who then went 74 yards in five plays, Chase Westfall making a tough diving catch for the 12-yard touchdown.
The Eagles were answering until they got inside the Catamounts’ 40.
TJ Anderson lost a yard on a pitchout that Oliver was hammered during. Jurmon Weaver lost five, and then limped off the field. An incomplete pass preceded a shanked 14-yard punt.
On first down, Veraldi floated to his left, stopped and fired downfield to an open Noland, who took advantage of a major coverage breakdown for a 72-yard touchdown with 1:27 left in the half.
Rodriguez’s kick pulled the Catamounts within 17-14, the score at halftime.
“We started to slow down a little bit there when they got the momentum going,” Kinsler said. “I wanted to make sure that we understood that we still had the lead, and this was the kind of football game where you better play for 48 minutes.”