CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In a defensive struggle, a handful of plays made all the difference.
The North Bears stormed out to an early 10-0 lead and ultimately held on for a tightly-contested 10-7 victory over the South Cardinals during the 2017 West Virginia North-South Football Classic held Saturday night at Laidley Field on the campus of the University of Charleston.
Neither the Bears nor the Cardinals mustered more than 265 yards of total offense, and each squad went about doing its offensive damage in different ways.
The North averaged more than five yards per carry while churning out 198 of its 264 total yards on the ground, while the South produced 225 yards through the air out of its final tally of 244 yards.
After both offenses sputtered on their opening drives, the Bears put together a substantial gain that resulted in the first points of the game following a successful 31-yard field goal from Miguel Pereira. Pereira, from Spring Mills, gave the North a 3-0 advantage with 1:13 remaining in the first period.
The Cardinals had their ensuing drive stall, which led to a remarkable punt that was downed inside the one — leaving the Bears in a very tight situation.
From its own endzone, North quarterback Will Billeter completed a 32-yard sideline pass to Corey McDonald. On the following play, Billeter — from St. Marys — faked a handoff and rumbled 67 yards to paydirt as a little misdirection gave the Bears their largest lead of the night with 7:35 remaining before halftime.
The Cardinals wasted no time in retaliating as the South marched down to the North’s 23-yard line, then Cody Fuller floated a jump ball to the right corner for Carter Sebert-Sweeney.
Sebert-Sweeney — from Nicholas County — hauled in the pass over two Bears defenders at the five, then turned and successfully lunged for the goal line all in one motion.
Sebert-Sweeney’s touchdown grab at the 4:37 mark of the second quarter made it a 10-7 contest headed into halftime.
Both squads again had their opening drives stall in the second half, then the South marched the ball down to the North five before a penalty moved them back five yards. The Cardinals attempted a 30-yard field goal, but Matthew Molina’s attempt sailed wide at the 3:38 mark — allowing the Bears to maintain their 10-7 edge.
With the temperatures dropping, the fourth quarter led to a bit more intensity in trying to determine a winner.
The North appeared to put things away at the 9:35 mark after a long bomb led to a touchdown, but the Bears were called for a penalty on the play — which negated the score and eventually led to a blocked punt that was recovered by Point Pleasant’s Grant Safford at midfield.
The South benefited from a controversial leading with the helmet penalty that extended its drive inside the Bears 30, but the North caught its own break three plays later when Nathaniel Frazier of Lewis County recovered a fumble at the Bears 24.
Frazier’s takeaway proved to be the only turnover of the game … and it came with 7:10 remaining in the contest.
The Bears ate up some clock with an extended ground attack, but the North was ultimately forced to punt with under three minutes left.
The Cardinals had four unsuccessful attempts at gaining a first down, which led to the Bears taking over possession at the South 11 with 1:53 remaining.
The North had its final drive stall on downs at the two, allowing the South just 11.5 seconds to cover 98 yards for the potential game-winning drive.
The Cardinals opted to throw a short pass to pick up yardage, but they were unable to get another play off before the clock hit all zeroes — allowing the North to win back-to-back games in this series for the first time since 2004-05.
The South claimed a small 11-10 edge in first downs and also had only five of the dozen punts in the contest, but the Cardinals did also commit the only turnover of the night.
The Bears were penalized eight times for 70 yards, while the South drew seven flags for 35 yards.
Billeter led the North with 71 rushing yards on two carries and also completed one pass for 32 yards. Latrell Warr also had 69 yards on 17 carriers, while Isaac Myers was 4-of-10 passing for 34 yards. Trevor Hoosier grabbed two passes for 21 yards for the Bears as well.
Joe Hunt led the Cardinals with 18 rushing yards and Dylan Lucas added 17 yards on the ground. Darnell Brooks led the wideouts with six catches for 79 yards.
Tate Mayes was 8-of-11 passing for 134 yards, while Fuller completed 7-of-15 passes for 91 yards and a score.
Point Pleasant had two representatives involved with the South team in recent graduates Grant Safford and Zach Wamsley. Both played on the defensive side of the ball in the setback.
Afterwards, Safford spoke about participating in the event and what made it so special for him.
“I’m very proud to have been here for this because it was a great experience,” Safford said. “There are a lot of college-bound players here and the game was definitely being played at another level tonight, so it was a really good test for me personally.
“The other thing about this is getting to know the guys on this South team. It’s one thing when you are playing against them, but it’s another thing to get to know them over the last week as teammates. I’ve met a lot of really great people through this experience, and that’s something I’ll always cherish.”
Wamsley, too, was honored to be part of the all-star competition.
“It was really nice to get to meet these guys on the South team this week. They are good guys and you get to see their passion for football is as strong as ours is at Point Pleasant,” Wamsley said. “This was a great experience, especially getting to meet all of these guys that you have played against in the past. It’s easier to get to know these guys when they aren’t your opponent.
“The outcome is what it is, but it was a great honor and experience nonetheless. It was a well-played defensive game and both teams played with pride. That’s what you’d expect in a game like this and that’s a good way to finish your high school career, regardless if you win or lose.”
Brooks — from George Washington — suffered an injury but was still named the Cardinals’ most valuable player in the loss. University defensive lineman Isaiah Utt won MVP honors for the North.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.