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KENLY — In an eventual 17-0 loss to Warsaw James Kenan, the ability to punctuate drives with a touchdown proved to be elusive for the North Johnston High football team on Monday night.
“It’s like a fat man going into the doughnut shop and not getting to eat,” first-year head coach Michael Barnett explained after the game. “I mean, it’s like we’re right there.”
North Johnston had several chances to score that would have been game-changing, but four turnovers handed to the Tigers, losing three of five fumbles and throwing a late interception, proved deadly. That left the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference Panthers feeling empty at the conclusion of a weeknight matchup moved from the previous Friday due to Hurricane Dorian. North Johnston remained winless through three games while the 2-A East Central Conference Tigers departed 2-1.
Despite missed opportunities and drives that ended as quickly as they began, North Johnston drove down to the red zone three times and nearly scored all three times. That, at the least, would have been enough to keep the game close — with a would-be early lead or a mounted comeback late in the second half. Yet each time, the drive was derailed.
The first opportunity came in the team’s second drive of the game, midway through the first quarter. North Johnston ran the ball methodically, driving all the way down to the 13-yard line with a fresh set of downs to make a play. But four tries later, the drive fizzled out as the Panthers turned the ball over on downs at the 5-yard line, just two yards short of converting and another skip away from a score.
That early drive would be as close as the team would get in the first half. While holding James Kenan scoreless up until halftime after forcing the Tigers into two interceptions and two punts, North Johnston could not capitalize on the momentum.
On the Panthers next two drives after the near-score, the turnovers started. On back-to-back drives, North Johnston fumbled on the fourth play of both drives.
After the game, the mere mention of the word turnover caused an immediate reflex reaction for Barnett.
“Oh, my goodness!” Barnett said, backing up a few steps and pausing to process his thoughts. “Pow, pow, pow! Shot our feet off.”
The Panthers went into halftime tied 0-0, but things quickly got away from them when play resumed.
The Tigers received the opening kickoff of the second half and drove all the way down to kick a 39-yard field, the consolation of a goal-line stand made by the North Johnston defense that pushed the team further away from the end zone.
“It felt good to get some points,” James Kenan head coach Will Clark said.
When North Johnston got the ball back again, the team immediately fumbled, setting up the Tigers in position to take a 10-0 lead after running back Carlton Peterson took a 45-yard rush all the way for a score.
In response, North Johnston punted after three plays, then forced a fumble out of a sack to get the ball right back.
When starting quarterback Garrett Brown went down with an injury, freshman Carter Aycock directed a march down to the 8-yard line. On fourth down, Graham Walston’s 27-yard field-goal attempt went wide.
Again, points evaded the Panthers, even after the turnovers were temporarily halted.
With the ball back, a quick drive by James Kenan worked the ball from deep in its own territory to the opposite red zone on three plays of chunky yardage, covering 20-plus yards each. The drive was capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Andrew Pender.
After the touchdown, North Johnston had one final chance to score, if nothing else to prove it could overcome all the mistakes that had plagued it all game. After six plays, the Panthers again were threatening, but Aycock tried to force a throw into the end zone on fourth down and his pass was intercepted.
After all the turnovers, Barnett said it was nearly impossible for his offense to succeed.
“When it comes down to it, when it comes to our offense, ball security is the number one thing,” Barnett said.
The Panthers managed just 139 yards of offense, with turnovers sinking the team from start to finish.
Yet even though the team is now 0-3, Barnett said he thinks his team is moving in the right direction. In each loss, the progress made on the offensive side gives him hope that soon the team will play a complete game.
“We’re starting to get pieces,” Barnett said. “The first game it was one or two, Rosewood it was five or six and now we have eight or nine people clicking. We’re one or two not (making) mistakes from being all right.”