The Northwest High School football team’s devastating Week 9 loss to crosstown rival Quince Orchard was a wake-up call and forced the Jaguars to look inward. They had to decide as a unit, coach Mike Neubeiser said after the disappointing defeat, how committed they were to advancing past the Class 4A West Region for the first time since 2015 and getting themselves back into state title contention. Some valuable soul searching over the past three weeks, combined with productive practices and positive attitudes, translated into one of the Jaguars’ best performances of 2018 in a decisive 56-20, regional semifinal win over Winston Churchill on Nov. 9.
Though Northwest handed the Bulldogs their only regular-season loss, 48-20, earlier this fall, Neubeiser said he was still wary of the matchup—and of Churchill’s multifaceted senior quarterback Michael Janis, whom Northwest’s coach credited as one of the county’s best and difficult to defend.
“I was nervous about Churchill’s offense coming into the game,” Neubeiser said. “They have a sophisticated offense that forces the defense to play assignment football. Any slip-up or missed assignment can lead directly to (a touchdown) for Churchill.”
But the Jaguars (9-2) were on a mission and the victory over Churchill set up a Class 4A West Region final rematch with Quince Orchard. The region championship, to be hosted by the top-seeded Cougars and scheduled for Nov. 16 at 7 p.m., marks the sixth time in seven years the two teams will play for a spot in the state semifinals.
Three-time state champion Northwest (2004, 2013-14) leads the teams’ postseason head-to-head since 2012, 3-2, having avenged regular-season losses to Quince Orchard en route to region titles in 2014-15. But if the Jaguars are going to rebound from their convincing defeat three weeks ago, they’re going to have to do a better job of slowing the Cougars’ power running game, Neubeiser said, and take better care of the ball on offense, cutting down on their own errors that cost them mightily.
“The last time we played (Quince Orchard), we fumbled and threw an interception on our first two drives,” Neubeiser said. “You can’t consistently give QO a short field and expect to be successful.”
Northwest’s recent introspection has been largely focused on finding the team’s true identity and figuring out how to best use the Jaguars’ strengths to their advantage. Overall an athletic bunch, Northwest is brimming with versatility and playmaking options. But it takes more than just “doing a lot of things well” to win a state championship and over the past three weeks, the Jaguars have honed in on what can set them apart on the gridiron. And that seems to be widespread athleticism and overall team speed.
Though Northwest can always turn to power running—led by Ajahni Terry— when it will best serve it, the Jaguars are not the type of team that’s going to thrive off merely trying to mow over its opponents play after play. Rather, their dynamic lends itself more to pinpointing and exploiting favorable matchups, Neubeiser said. Northwest’s variety, its ability to adjust based on the challenges each team presents, has the potential to keep opponents on their heels, and the Jaguars’ success the rest of this season will rest on whether or not they’re able to capitalize.
Sophomore quarterback Jordan Morse stepped into the starting role, and his strong arm was on display as he threw for three touchdowns in an explosive first half against Churchill, during which the Jaguars took a commanding 42-6 lead. Within six minutes, Northwest led 14-0 off touchdown receptions from Drew Howard—for 25 yards—and DeAndre Jules. Jules, who also provided excellent blocking coverage up front to pave the way for Northwest’s ground game, blocked Churchill’s extra-point attempt after the Bulldogs cut the Jaguars’ lead to 14-6.
But Howard’s 53-yard kickoff return and Roderick James’ 20-yard scamper into the end zone put Northwest up by three scores, 28-6, late in the first quarter. Morse’s 38-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Woods on fourth and 20 made it 35-6 early in the second quarter and another James run—for 23 yards—into the end zone gave Northwest its formidable halftime advantage.
“(Morse) is a coachable player who loves to compete,” Neubeiser said. “He brings confidence (to his role), leadership, good athleticism and a strong arm and his teammates respond well to him. They’re willing to work when he’s in there.”
The Jaguars’ defense was also strong out of the gates; Daniel Worthy picked up two major sacks in the first half and Rha Overstreet tallied at least one tackle for a sizable loss.
Senior quarterback Jack Anders took over to start the second half and after Terry’s beastly 21-yard touchdown run, connected with Howard for a 36-yard touchdown pass—and Howard’s third score of the night.
“We had a great week of practice (leading into the Churchill game), so it was good to see the hard work and positive attitudes pay off,” Neubeiser said.