Whenever Riverside Academy needed it most, Garland Robertson Jr. came up with something special.
After Northlake Christian scored a touchdown to pull to make it a six-point game at 27-21 less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, Robertson raced 79 yards with the ensuing kickoff to extend the Rebels’ lead to 35-21.
Earlier in the game, he returned a punt 63 yards to set up a touchdown that allowed Riverside to tie the game 7-7 after the Rebels got off to a sluggish start.
Those two returns, along with a snap over the head of the Northlake Christian punter to set up another first-half touchdown, proved to be the difference in Riverside’s 42-21 triumph over the Wolverines in the opening round of the Division III playoffs Friday night in Reserve.
“The offense was struggling and the defense was struggling and we just needed a spark. Special teams is a weapon and we used that weapon tonight,” Robertson said.
“I’m not very pleased with our performance tonight on offense or defense but what success in the playoffs is about is about all three phases of the game. Three big-time special teams plays all led to points and we win by 21 points. There’s your 21 points,” Riverside coach Chris Lachney said.
The win advances Riverside, the No. 5 seed to the quarterfinals when the Rebels travel to Baton Rouge to take on Dunham. Dunham, the No. 4 seed, defeated No. 13 John Paul II 55-6 on Friday.
Riverside led 13-7 to open the second half before the Wolverines quickly took the lead at the 8:57 mark of the third quarter on a 42-yard run by burly Wesley Brown.
The Rebels regained the momentum less than two minutes later when Louis Cheneau broke loose on a 41-yard run to put Riverside back on top at 20-14.
“In that drive, it was a few plays (before) when I dropped the ball and I had to redeem myself off a play I had messed up on. I told the coaches, ‘give me the ball back and I will make a big play for us,’ and that’s what I did,” Cheneau said.
Two plays after the Rebels’ defense came up with a stop on fourth-and-1 from the Northlake Christian 43, Riverside quarterback Jordan Loving connected with Jeremiah Bigham on a 19-yard strike to extend RA’s lead to 27-14.
Just when it seemed like the Rebels had given themselves a sufficient cushion, Northlake Christian mounted a gut-check drive.
The Wolverines moved from their own 20-yard line to the Riverside 44 mostly on the ground like they had done throughout the game.
Nick Morman, off of play-action, dropped back to pass and found Brown wide open for 34 yards. Two plays later, Morman scored on a 1-yard run to make it 27-21 with 10:18 left in the game.
Morman and Brown were used as interchangeable parts. Both played quarterback – much of it from a wildcat formation – running back and slot receiver in the game to great success.
Morman rushed for 190 yards on 23 carries and a touchdown while Brown added 111 on the ground and two scores.
“Wherever they need the ball to be, that’s where you can find one of those two guys, for sure. Those two players are as good as any players we saw all year. We played a hellacious schedule and those two can play for anybody,” Lachney said of Morman and Brown.
Robertson followed with his kickoff return along the sideline in front of the Northlake Christian bench to build Riverside’s lead to 35-21.
“It was too easy,” Robertson said of his return.
Brown fumbled the ball away two plays later at his own 29-yard line. Three plays later, Loving tossed 10 yards to Kash Foley to put the game away at 42-21 with 8:58 left in the contest.
It mattered little whether Morman or Brown handled the ball or from what position on the opening possession of the game as Northlake Christian picked up yards in chunks.
The Wolverines had gains of 9 yards or more on four of seven plays on the possession, culminating the 74-yard drive on a 1-yard run by Brown from the running back position to give Northlake a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the contest.
“When you defend and unorthodox offense, you can practice it all day long, and I’ve heard people say, ‘until you see the fastball for the first time,’ it takes you a little time to settle in. We didn’t start very well on defense but our kids settled in and pretty much played good football for the rest of the way,” Lachney said.
The first of the special teams play seemed to work in the Rebels’ favor in a different fashion from Robertson’s returns.
With less than six minutes remaining in the first half, Northlake Christian forced a Riverside punt from the Rebels’ 37. A low snap appeared to cause Riverside punter Bobby Knowles to go down to one knee to field the ball before getting off the kick. The punt was allowed and Northlake Christian took possession at its own 37 instead of inside the RA 30.
Riverside forced the punt that Robertson returned 63 yards to set up a 13-yard toss from Loving to Bigham to tie the game with 2:13 remaining before halftime.
“It was a sideline return to the right side. I saw the whole team coming to the right and I cut back. I ran out of energy at the end. I wish I would have scored,” Robertson said.
The Wolverines were forced to punt from their own 35 on their next possession. The snap sailed over the head of Northlake punter Ian Lopez, with Ahmonte Watkins recovering at the 4-yard line. Three plays later, Loving rolled right for a 4-yard touchdown to put Riverside on top 13-7 with only 13 seconds left before halftime.