KENNESAW -- For more than three quarters, the defending state champion in GHSA Class AAAAA was living a bit of a nightmare Friday night.
The defense couldn’t cover receivers on fairly simple routes and then struggled to tackle. And the offense coughed and sputtered and showed little progress.
And just like that, the nightmare turned into a dream finish.
Isaiah Nelson returned an interception 67 yards for a touchdown, and then Tobias Oliver capped a rough night with a perfect game-winning touchdown pass to Treyvon Willis with 21.7 seconds left as top-ranked Northside stormed back for a 27-24 win over North Cobb at Emory Sewell Stadium in the season opener.
The Eagles’ celebration that was so loud afterward likely was tempered on the drive back, and they prepared to most likely finish the season without senior defensive back Chris Haughton.
One of the defensive leaders, Haughton suffered a fairly serious leg injury when he returned a kickoff in the final seconds of the first half and was taken to a local hospital where surgery was likely.
Then the Eagles threw a second-half shutout.
“I can’t say enough about Jalen Andrews, who came in for Chris and made some big plays on the screen in the second half,” said Northside head coach Kevin Kinsler, who was in a hurry to talk to his team and head to the hospital. “He did a good job on the short screen they hurt us with early. And Isaiah Nelson came up with a couple of big interceptions.
“Guys rose up.”
That might have been unexpected after a delay of about 15 or so minutes before Haughton was carried off and put into an ambulance. The Eagles went to the locker room with that vision as well as a shocking 24-6 deficit.
North Cobb converted a pair of interceptions into touchdowns in the first half, and Oliver had perhaps his roughest night -- for more than three quarters -- as a starter.
The Warriors couldn’t completely take control, and the Eagles made some progress after converting a North Cobb fumble into a 1-yard Oliver touchdown with 5:27 left in the third quarter. Justin Alonso’s extra-point kick pulled the Eagles within 24-13.
Northside’s defense was going to have to make some big plays, and Nelson got it started with an interception on the second play of the fourth quarter. Northside did little with it, but the Eagles also kept North Cobb from doing anything.
The Warriors then appeared in sync to eat up enough clock to preserve the 11-point win, taking over on their 30 with 9:08 left in the game. They consumed nearly four minutes and faced a third-and-15 on their 47.
Lovett, who was 16-for-17 for 203 yards in the first half, overshot, and Nelson snagged it, went to the right and zipped through the traffic for the stadium-stunning touchdown to keep the Eagles alive and pull them within 24-19 at the 4:51 mark after the conversion failed.
The defense forced another three-and-out, but the Eagles gave the ball back on downs at the North Cobb 46 with 2:10 left. The Eagles then used all of their timeouts to force a punt and started on their 45 with only 1:40 left.
Suddenly, there was crispness on the Northside offense, although a false start added to the suspense.
On third and-15 from the 20, everything clicked as Oliver zipped a bullet to Willis on a slant for the touchdown.
“The middle linebacker was playing inside of the inside receiver,” Oliver said. “So I knew the middle guy was going to be wide open.”
Then Oliver kept around the right side and somehow got the ball over the pylon -- while his body seemed far from the ball and pylon -- for the conversion and a 3-point lead. North Cobb touched the kickoff and it went out at the 2.
Three passes later, the celebration began as Oliver’s legend added a chapter.
“Playing quarterback, you’ve got to have a short-term memory,” he said of the heroics following the struggles. “You’ve got to keep playing.”