Blair falls to Northwood in battle of University Boulevard
NORTHWOOD STADIUM, Sept. 14 -
The hyped-up match between fierce rivals Blair (0-2) and Northwood (1-1) ended sorely for the red-and-white, as the Gladiators took the lead for the first and final time in the last minute of play to win by a score of 18-13.
An ominous drizzle never retreated as the Northwood stadium was packed full of fans for the school's first varsity football game under the lights since its reopening. Northwood sold special t-shirts for the game, dubbed a "blackout," but the visiting Blazers demonstrated throughout the night that they had no shortage of support.
With the fourth quarter winding down, Blair desperately clung to a one-point 13-12 lead. A long run by Northwood's star running back Alex Bazzie Jr. moved the home team all the way to the Blazer 26-yard line. But the Blazer defense showed perseverance, denying Bazzie yardage the next play, and with the help of a Northwood penalty, drove the Gladiators back to the 30-yard line on third down and 19 yards to go.
Bazzie, as was the case all game, got the handoff again and with the game on the line made a huge run to within two yards of a first down. The Blair devotees held their breath and the Blazer cheerleaders held hands as the two rivals lined up for the decisive fourth down. But Bazzie was not to be stopped. Two carries later and with just over forty seconds remaining, Bazzi got to the end zone, putting Northwood up for good, 18-13.
Characteristically, Blair had started quickly, with the Blazer defense forcing a fumble deep in Northwood territory on the second play of the game. After a short drive that included a gutsy fourth-down conversion, the Blazers struck first with one-yard touchdown throw. Blair's extra point attempt, their first all season, was unsuccessful, putting the score at 6-0.
Northwood went straight to work with Bazzie. However, the Blair defense had no trouble early on. Bazzie occasionally broke through for a first down, but the Northwood offense was quiet in the first quarter.
Blair similarly kept to the ground game. The wet conditions made catching passes difficult, so Blazer junior running back Keith Ayensu was given the responsibility of moving the chains. Ayensu, who finished with 109 yards, had no trouble finding room to run, and single-handedly put together a drive that ended the first quarter on a short touchdown run. This extra point was good, putting Blair up 13-0 amidst chants of "Oh, ah, you wish you were a Blazer."
Northwood dictated the pace in the second quarter, however. A short Blair kickoff put the Gladiators near midfield. Northwood continued to use Bazzie, who was stumped by Blair until he broke a long run into Blazer territory and wasn't taken down until well into the red zone. A penalty and backfield tackle brought the line of scrimmage back ten yards, but the Northwood quarterback hit a wide open receiver on the left sideline for a thirty-yard touchdown.
Back in the game, the Blair offense offered their defensive counterparts little rest, throwing the ball right into the arms of a Gladiator for an easy interception on the first play of the drive. Northwood took over at the Blair 45-yard line and pounded the ball down the short field with Bazzie. Then a deep lob towards the right flank into one-on-one coverage bobbled right out of the outstretched hands of a Blazer and into those of a Northwood receiver in the end-zone.
"Their big plays killed us," Ayensu explained. "Our defense played well but they were able to score on the short field we gave them." Blair headed to the lockers with the lead at halftime though, after Northwood mishandled the snap on their extra point attempt.
Senior Enuma Nzesi grabbed the second half kickoff for the Blazers and made a magnificent return of 60-plus yards to the Northwood 37-yard line. Then Ayensu took over, pounding into the red-zone after a couple of carries. From there, however, things started going backwards, as a penalty, sack and tackle behind the line of scrimmage drove Blair back to fourth and 26. A desperate heave by sophomore quarterback Alex Egber missed its target and turned the ball over on downs.
The Blair fans were undeterred. Chants of "De-fense" filled the air as, pumping up the visiting team with impeccable unity. Senior linebacker Rex Jarrett responded to the energy, making a huge tackle for loss and then blocking a pass on the following play to force a Gladiator fourth down.
With the ball and 12 minutes left in the game, Ayensu and the Blair offense went back to work. Ayensu continued to get the call, and he continued gaining yardage as the Blazers marched to the Northwood 25-yard line. With another carry Blair's go-to man brought his team within 13 yards of another touchdown. On the short field, though, Northwood defenders packed the line of scrimmage, accurately anticipating the run. Before long it was fourth and seven just inside the 10-yard mark. Then a false start penalty pushed Blair back, and the fourth-down conversion failed as Egber was left unprotected and subsequently sacked.
Ayensu described the offense's frustration. "The offense put together great drives and got yards but couldn't punch it in, especially in the second half," he said.
After Northwood captured the lead with under a minute to play, the Blair faithful rallied one last time, echoing the cheerleaders in Blazer support. But a fumble on the ensuing kickoff relinquished any hopes of a miracle.
After the game, Blair assistant coach Bryan Nance was straightforward but optimistic. "We just need to play one complete football game," he said. "The moments are there but we gotta play the whole game."
The Blazers' next home game is Thursday, Sept. 20 against Gaithersburg at 6:30 p.m.
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