Northwood’s Fortunes airs it out in conference-opening loss to Williams

Posted 9/23/21

The Chargers (1-3) looked sluggish at times in their Central 3A conference opener against the Walter M. Williams Bulldogs (2-3), falling 34-7 — the goose egg saved by a touchdown on their second-to-last possession — after having last week’s game against Southeast Raleigh canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.

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Northwood’s Fortunes airs it out in conference-opening loss to Williams

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Posted

BURLINGTON — Rest vs. rust.

It’s a sports debate as old as time.

Does taking a week off typically help players feel rested and refreshed, primed to dominate their competition the following week? Or does it do the opposite, making them feel rusty and out of shape, causing them to stumble after the break?

For Northwood on Friday, it was undoubtedly the latter.

The Chargers (1-3) looked sluggish at times in their Central 3A conference opener against the Walter M. Williams Bulldogs (2-3), falling 34-7 — the goose egg saved by a touchdown on their second-to-last possession — after having last week’s game against Southeast Raleigh canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.

“To be on a bye week, coming out late, we’re just slow,” Cullen Homolka, Northwood’s third-year head coach, said after the loss. “They’re not better than us, we just let them play better than us.”

Despite the lopsided score, the Chargers had just 11 fewer yards of offense than the Bulldogs — 238 to Williams’ 249 — but costly turnovers continuously gave the Bulldogs a short field, meaning they didn’t have to travel far before getting into field goal range or waltzing into the end zone.

Five of the Bulldogs’ six scoring drives started in Northwood territory, with three of them coming off of Chargers turnovers: two fumbles and an interception, along with two turnovers on downs.

Williams never had a scoring drive longer than 56 yards, a credit to Northwood’s defense when it was given a fair shot.

“I was proud of our defense,” Homolka said. “They were kind of put in positions where they had to be resilient and do their thing and I think they did the best they could against a team that has some really good athletes.”

You can’t talk about Williams’ stellar offensive pieces without mentioning its junior quarterback, Jaelen Brown, who threw for 114 yards and three touchdowns against the Chargers, including two to senior wide receiver Izayah Ramsey.

With his team leading 17-0 late in the third quarter, just two plays after the Bulldogs forced a fumble by Northwood senior running back Ryan Hilliard, Brown found Ramsey streaking across the middle of the field, just a tad faster than the defender trailing behind him.

Brown spotted him, cranked his arm back and let it fly, hitting Ramsey in stride, who coasted to the end zone for a 44-yard score to give Williams a 24-0 lead.

It was all but over.

“We have multiple options, we’ve got a lot of weapons at different spots — the wide receiver spot, the quarterback spot, the running back spot — so it’s kind of a pick-your-poison,” Patrick Stokes, Williams’ first-year head coach, said after the game. “Jaelen Brown had a lot of big plays tonight, so he probably gets (the game ball) for the offense.”

For the Chargers, their missing depth at running back could be partly to blame for their lack of offensive production against the Bulldogs.

Entering the game, Northwood was without starting senior running back Jalen Paige, who Homolka said was “a little banged up,” along with senior running back Dashaun Vines-McSwain, two of the team’s top options in the run game.

In Northwood’s previous contest, a narrow home loss to Chapel Hill, Paige and Vines-McSwain combined for 38 carries for 212 yards and four touchdowns. Their absence assuredly left a void against the Bulldogs.

The Chargers still managed to run for 128 yards on Friday, 24 more than Williams, but it was clear that they were missing some of the explosiveness those two bring to their offense, with their longest run of the night coming on an 18-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

Normally, the Chargers run a ground-and-pound offense with minimal passing plays, but being shorthanded in the backfield caused Homolka and his staff to get creative.

Sophomore quarterback Carson Fortunes was the beneficiary of the Chargers’ alternate game plan, allowing him to air it out and complete six of his nine passes for 111 yards, along with two interceptions.

While Fortunes didn’t always look polished — his two interceptions were mostly on him, including one that came in the end zone on what ended a promising drive to open the third quarter — he made use of his athleticism by scrambling well and finding his targets downfield on the run.

Before Friday night, the most passes Fortunes had thrown in a game were five (0-for-5, one interception) against Chapel Hill two weeks ago, but in his first chance to truly take control of the passing game, he fared well, completing nearly 67% of his passes and throwing for over 100 yards for the first time in his young career.

“He’s getting a little bit better of an understanding of what he’s supposed to do,” Homolka said. “We’re progressing, it’s going to get better. He’s learning, he’s definitely taking the coaching. Hopefully, we’ll put a little bit better of a product out there next week.”

“We made them look great throwing the football and that quarterback’s really a tough kid for them,” Stokes added. “He stayed in the pocket and he found his guys and he prolonged a lot of plays with his athleticism. I think they’re going to win a lot of games moving forward.”

On the Chargers’ penultimate possession, a couple of Williams penalties and short runs allowed Northwood to set up shop in the red zone, trailing 34-0.

The ball was snapped and Fortunes handed it off to senior running back Savon Gattis (11 carries, 37 yards, TD), who darted left, spun past a defender and broke a tackle before carrying another Bulldog — draped all over him — into the end zone on an angry run for an 18-yard touchdown and the Chargers’ best play of the night.

After the play, Gattis didn’t appear to celebrate — even when his teammate lifted him into the air and hugged him. He strutted, angrily, to the sideline in a way that showed dissatisfaction in the final score, despite him having just gotten into the end zone for the second time this season.

It seemed Homolka felt the same way after the game.

“We’re getting better,” Homolka said, “but hopefully, next week, we play better than this week.”

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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