On a night where they made big play after big play, the Forsyth Central Bulldogs fell a couple of plays short of a big victory.
The Bulldogs moved up and down the field all night against Northview, but in the end left their home field smarting over a 40-33 loss. For a team with 18 new starters this season, playing a football game with postseason implications for the first time in several seasons, Central (2-7, 2-3 Region 7A-AAAAA) nearly seized its chance to grab momentum heading into next week’s play-in game.
"We’ve got to get over that hump," Central coach Chris Bennett said. "We’ve had four games where we have had a chance to win. Our kids fight. They fought hard tonight, but we just did not get a stop when we needed it."
Central finishes as the fourth seed in the subregion, and will travel to No. 7 Kell in a play-in game for the Class AAAAA state playoffs on Friday. Bennett emphasized to his players after the game they still have a chance to crash the postseason party.
"We’ve still got a shot," he said, smiling. "We can still make the playoffs, as crazy as that sounds."
Central knew it would have to contain an explosive offensive attack by Northview (3-6, 3-2) to have a chance Friday.
Northview running back Terrence Upshaw scored five touchdowns and finished with 149 yards on 25 carries. Northview quarterback D.J. Pearson completed 21 of 26 passes for 244 yards and a score. But thanks to 346 rushing yards and three players topping 100 yards rushing, Central found itself in the game all night.
Down 34-20 with 4:07 left in the third quarter, the Bulldogs went on a nine-play, 65-yard drive. Quarterback Michael Branigan, who rushed for four touchdowns and led Central with 133 yards rushing on 23 carries, scored from two yards out on the second play of the fourth quarter. Anel Ramic’s extra point pulled Central within 34-27.
The Bulldogs went for an onside kick, and Daniel Ryan recovered for Central at midfield. Branigan kept the drive alive on third-and-14, his first pass attempt of the evening finding CJ Cochran for 24 yards. A personal foul penalty on the Titans after the completion moved Central to the 7 yard line.
Branigan scored three plays later from one yard out. The extra-point attempt failed, but Central sat within one point at 34-33 with an even seven minutes remaining.
Upshaw, who has an offer from Vanderbilt and who scored five touchdowns last week against Sequoyah, broke free on runs of 11 and 26 yards on the ensuing drive. His one-yard touchdown run with 5:59 to go staked Northview to a 40-33 advantage.
Central’s next drive stalled out at midfield. The Titans marched to the Central 21, where Upshaw was stuffed on fourth-and-1 with 1:01 remaining. But the Bulldogs could not pick up a first down.
Central did all it could to keep the ball out of Northview’s hands. Jake Gorczyca rushed for 115 yards on 16 carries, doing the bruising work between the tackles. Cochran added 100 yards on 15 carries, many coming on pitch plays to the edge. The Titans defense struggled all night to contain the Bulldogs’ rushing attack, thanks to a great performance from Central’s offensive line.
"Hats off to our offensive line," Bennett said. "We knew what we had to do, and that’s try to take it out of their hands."
The Bulldogs’ strategy paid off on the game’s opening possession. Central held the ball for 8 minutes, 7 seconds, capping a 13-play drive with Ramic’s 33-yard field goal to go up 3-0 with 3:53 left in the quarter.
Northview took a 7-3 lead on Upshaw’s one-yard touchdown run with 1:34 left in the quarter, but the Bulldogs answered. Gorczyca and Cochran each had key 11-yard rushes on the drive, and Branigan wove his way the final nine yards to the end zone. Ramic’s extra point gave Central a 10-7 advantage with 7:52 left in the half.
After Upshaw scored on a three-yard run with 5:01 remaining, Central needed just three plays to reclaim the lead. Branigan broke free on a quarterback keeper up the middle, slipped through four Northview tackles and raced 46 yards for a touchdown. Ramic kicked the extra point to make it 17-14 with 3:42 left.
Upshaw’s two-yard run with 1:15 remaining gave the Titans a 21-17 advantage. But Central had just enough time, especially after Gorczyca drug several tacklers the final 10 yards of a 40-yard rush that gave the Bulldogs a first down at the Northview 39.
Three plays later, Ramic ended the half with a 49-yard field goal, the ball just making it across the crossbar to pull the Bulldogs within 21-20.
Pearson, who completed passes to seven different receivers, threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Matt Biondich to cap a 10-play drive on the opening possession of the second half. After Central was stopped on its first drive of the half, Upshaw scored on a 1-yard run with 4:07 left in the quarter to give the Titans a 14-point advantage.
"Sometimes you lose, and you have to experience that to learn from it," Bennett said. "Sometimes, the experience is not always fun."