A year ago, offensive fireworks were the theme of the day as the North outlasted the South 42-35 to stop a six-year losing streak.
This time around on Saturday at University of Charleston Stadium, it was more like watching the South try to demolish a brick wall with a handful of firecrackers.
That wall on the North’s defensive front held a potent South rushing attack to just 18 yards on 28 carries and stonewalled the Cardinals twice inside the 15-yard line in the second half in leading the Bears to a second straight win in a 10-7 slugfest at the 64th WCHS-TV 8 Fox 11 North-South Classic.
At the forefront of that was University’s Isaiah Utt, who took home MVP honors for his team with a squad-best eight tackles. He will continue his playing career at WVU next year.
And when the South tried to go wide with a jet sweep, there was East Hardy defensive end Ricky Robinson, who made seven tackles of his own.
It was quite a challenge for the North in stopping the slashing, speedy exploits of Buffalo’s Dylan Lucas, who took home the Curt Warner award for the state’s top running back this season. The complementary punch was big Joe Hunt of Mingo Central, who was named the MVP of the Class AA championship game after romping for 215 yards on 36 carries against Fairmont Senior.
But on Saturday, the duo combined for just 35 yards on 18 rushes and neither could find a even a sliver of room in the red zone when the Cardinals absolutely needed it.
“Our defensive line, we got in there and on day one we were one,” Utt said. “It felt like I’ve played with these guys since I was in elementary school. Everything came down to us having such a bond with each other and that’s what won this game, I believe that 100 percent. We rely on each other. Someone has to take on a double team, there’s going to be someone there to fill it. I’ve never played with a defensive line like this.”
The South strode into Saturday night’s game boasting five offensive lineman at 300 or more pounds and a sixth at 295. Hunt goes 5-foot-10, 220 pounds, meaning there was a lot of mass the North would have to fight off to slow down the Cardinals’ running attack.
But that was a challenge that spurred the defense on throughout the week.
“That did inspire us,” Robinson, who will continue playing at Shepherd University next year, said. “You know how it goes, the bigger you are at ‘O’ line, the better you are. We just took it as, we’re faster, we’re more athletic and we’re going to beat you.
“They were big, but honestly we keyed on our stunts and we just did our best. We worked very hard in practice and we knew we had the strongest ‘D’ line of the North and South.”
At the helm was Wheeling Park defensive coordinator Keith Phillips, who said after the game he looked at a lot of Mingo Central film in preparing for Saturday’s game.
With Hunt shouldering such a big load in the Miners offense, he figured to do the same on Saturday and the North was more than ready.
“Me personally, when I saw Joe Hunt in the backfield, I knew he was getting the ball so I just tried to swarm him,” Robinson said.
Phillips was no stranger to the North-South game as his son Zach won MVP honors for the North as a quarterback for Wheeling Park in 2014.
“For me, it’s great,” Phillips said. “To come down and be a part of this game and to have [Zach] texting me saying, ‘I threw three touchdowns, you better not let them take that record,’ it’s great. I’ll never forget it — never, never forget it.”
And it’s likely the North’s players won’t either as they stood tall in a second half in which the Bears’ own offense found the going tough.
On two possessions in the third quarter, South drives reached the 15-yard line and as far as the 4-yard line, but both resulted in missed field goals. The South’s first four possessions of the second half reached North territory but the score at halftime remained the score at the end of the game as the Bears turned the Cardinals away again and again.
“If you go in and force them to throw the football, good things can happen,” Phillips said. “Especially when you’re in a five-man front trying to get pressure.
“The big thing that our kids did is they stayed with it and kept pushing and pushing.”