By Kevin O’Rourke
Someone watching the Northwest Jaguars for the first time might have walked away from Friday night’s 47-12 victory over the DuVal High School Tigers with the misconception that Northwest was a one-dimensional team. And that one-dimension was E.J. Lee.
And you couldn’t blame them.
E.J. Lee’s six touchdown performance in the 4A State Semi-Finals was a thing of beauty. He caught three touchdowns. He ran one in from 85-yards out. He ran another one in from 41-yards out. And he scored on a 75-yard punt return.
If you were to listen to Northwest Head Coach Mike Neubeiser gush about his running back after the game, it might further support the misconception that Northwest was one dimensional.
“It was his best game,” said Neubeiser. “It was a special night for him. Earlier this week at practice, Mike Cornejo, an alumni and founder of MoCoFootball.com, came by practice to talk to the kids. He singled out E.J. saying he was the toughest player to ever play for Northwest. And, I think he is 100 percent accurate. That kid is just an animal. He’s a tough kid. He plays with so much heart.”
However, when you talk to the players on this team, the idea of Northwest being one dimensional begins to crumble. And it is E.J. Lee who is the first to begin to disabuse you of that notion.
“The guys on the offensive line were special tonight,” said Lee when asked his six score night. “They were able to make the key blocks. They were able to see second level. They just guided me to the end-zone.” He also credited that punt return team for his 70-yard touchdown return. “The guys were able to get some good blocks.”
The Northwest offensive line is made up of senior center is Austin Wickham, guards senior Maxwell Hughes and junior Tariq Manna, and the tackles are sophomore Cole Cheripko and senior T.J. Patterson.
As for the three passes, it had less to do with him and more to do with the type of coverage DuVal was playing and Pierce’s unquestioned ability to throw him the ball. “The passes were all in man-coverage, so all I had to do was get down field and beat the linebacker.”
Nothing to it.
It is especially easy to jump to the misconception that Northwest is a one-dimensional team because much of the talk coming to Friday’s game was on how DuVal was a one-dimensional team and their star junior Antoine Brooks showed why early in the game.
Brooks was all over the field throwing passes, catching passes, running for large chunks of yardage, intercepting Mark Pierce on one occasion, and scoring a touchdown. He was putting a scare into the Northwest faithful.
Until, he was seen limping in the second quarter. Then he could barely walk back from the locker room after halftime. And finally, he was on the sideline with his helmet off and wrapped in a blanket. And his team was not the same without him.
“He is a hell of a football player,” said Neubeiser.” When he went down with injury their offense wasn’t the same. It slowed them down a lot. He is an amazing player. He may be the best player in Maryland.”
While a final score of 47-12 says blow out. And then you realize that six touchdowns were scored by one guy, and the conclusion is that 1) EJ Lee is a great player. 2) Northwest is one dimensional. 3) Northwest is the E.J. Lee show. However, if you have been watching the Jags all year you know that nothing could be further from the truth. If you are a member of Jag Nation you know that Pierce to Jamar Wilson has been a deadly combination. You know that Northwest had only given up two touchdowns through its first seven games. You know that a Mike Neubesier coached team is going to emphasize special teams. And you would know that each of these aspects has contributed to Northwest winning games this season.
But then you think back about Friday night’s game and you realize that the first quarter ended 6-0, and at halftime the Jags lead 26-12. It was a special teams play that began to extend the scoring, and defensive stop on two shots at fourth-and-goal that limited Duval to just 12 points in the first half, and you start to see that Northwest is more than the E.J. Lee Show.
Northwest got the scoring started thanks to Lee’s first touchdown reception from Pierce, on a nice pass to the one-yard line along the sideline. It was pretty play that Pierce and Lee made look effortless. Northwest missed the extra point.
“He is a talented kid,” said Pierce of Lee. “But he couldn’t do what he does without our O-line and without our receivers blocking downfield. He is a great player, but in the end, it comes down to all of us doing our job and we just let him run and he does a really good job at it.”
Next a DuVal punt return would set the Tigers up in Northwest territory and the drive would end with Antoine Brooks running for his first touchdown of the game. But, Northwest’s Alex Rosemont would make a special teams play and block the extra point to keep the game tied at 6-6.
Next, came Brooks’ interception of a Mark Pierce pass at the DuVal 27-yard line. However, the Northwest defense would hold DuVal on a fourth-down try and the Jags would take over at the DuVal 36-yard line. Northwest would go up 12-6 on Lee’s second touchdown grab, on a similar pass from Pierce. The kick would fail again.
Northwest would score next on a blocked punt by senior Troy Lefeged, who would scoop it up and run it into the end-zone to stake Northwest to an 18-6 lead.
“Coach always says special teams wins games,” said Lefeged, who has been one of the players on this Northwest team who has always been able to add a spark and make the big play in a big spot. “I just try to make plays. I try hard in practice. I go full speed every day. I try to get as many looks and reps and work on my moves as I am coming of the edge.”
DuVal would put together another impressive drive behind the running of Brooks. He would account for most of the yards, but senior Marcus Bryan would dive over the goal line to narrow the Jag’s lead to 18-12 with 4:48 remaining in the half. The extra point would be blocked by Lefeged, but a DuVal penalty would negate the block.
Northwest’s drive would stall near mid-field and turn the ball over after an ill-conceived fake punt. It was easy to spot as the Jags, a team that has been going no huddle since week nine, huddled for 15 seconds to sort of the fake punt, which gave DuVal the ball in Northwest territory.
DuVal would drive down to get a first-and-goal but could not get the ball in the end zone, penalties and Northwest defensive plays would combine to force the Tigers to turn the ball over on downs. But not before the Jags had to make two stops on fourth-and-goal. DuVal would get a second change on fourth-and-goal after a defensive holding penalty against the Jags.
“Our defense stepped up this week,” said Neubeiser after the game.
After the stop, Northwest took over on downs at their own 15 with 2:12 remaining in the first half. On the first play of the drive, E.J. Lee would go around the left side, and follow his blockers for an 85-yard touchdown run. And a two-point conversion from Pierce to Jamar Wilson would allow Northwest to take a 26-12 lead into half.
Northwest would get the second half-kick off. Lee would get his third receiving touchdown on a 21-yard strike from Pierce. Pierce would throw to Aaron Beidleman for the two-point conversion, Jags lead 34-12 with 10:11 left in the third quarter.
Lee would find the end zone again in short order on a 41-yard scamper, which may have been his best run all year. He was stopped at the 25-yard-line by two Tiger defenders and Lee managed to slip past both of them and stumble and stagger into the end zone. All of which would not have been possible without the Northwest defense coming up with an interception to set up this drive. Junior Martin Foray step in front of a Kendell Dew-Gregory pass, to give the Jags the ball. Northwest was up 41-12 with 8:47 remaining in the third quarter.
Lee would cap off his special night with a 75-yard touchdown return. After letting the ball one-hop to him, he scooped it up and sprinted down the left side to cap a magical night and give the Jaguars a 47-12 victory.
The 12-1 Northwest Jaguars will travel to M&T Bank Stadium to play for the 4A State Championship for the second year in a row. They will face the 11-2 Old Mill High School Patriots from Millersville, Md. Old Mill’s two losses came in the first two weeks of the regular season 25-22 loss to Broadneck on Sept. 5 and 14-7 loss at Arundel on Sept. 12.
“We are excited a proud to be going back,” said Neubeiser. “We are the first team in school history to go back-to-back to the championship game. We still have one left and we have a lot of work to do this week.”
Coincidently, Northwest and Old Mill met in the preseason in a scrimmage which resulted in Northwest “winning” 41-36, but both teams are very different from that first meeting on Aug. 18.
“This is a business trip to M&T,” said Mark Pierce. “We are experienced. I don’t think we are going to get caught up in how big the game is. We are going to be calm and relaxed and do what we need to do to get the job done.”
Top: Northwest’s E.J. Lee (23) takes a Mark Pierce pass into the end zone for the first of his six touchdowns in the Jaguars 47-12 victory over DuVal in the State Semi-Final game on Friday Night.
Next: Northwest senior defensive back Kwab Asamoah (5) makes a touchdown saving tackle on Duval’s Antoine Brooks (2).
Next: E.J. Lee (23) makes his second touchdown catch of the night.
Next: Late in the second quarter, after a Northwest defensive stop, Lee (23) follows a convoy of blockers including wide receiver (16) Caleb Gills, and pulling guards Maxwell Hughes (60) and Tariq Manna (56) for an 85-yard touchdown run.
Next: Senior quarterback Mark Pierce (11) hangs in the pocket to complete one of his three touchdown passes to E.J. Lee.
Next: Northwest Jaguars celebrate their return to the 4A State Championship game for the second straight year.
Photos by Germantown Pulse.