Northwest High School football’s offense rushes to line up for the play, but then the quarterback calmly steps back, looks to the sidelines and waits, patiently, for the signals from the coaches.
It’s the “no-play,” as sophomore quarterback Mark Pierce calls it. The team runs a hard count while offensive coordinator Justin Sickeri selects a play based on the defense he sees.
In Friday’s 4A state semifinal victory against Paint Branch, the “no-play” worked to perfection.
Led by Pierce’s seven touchdowns, Northwest defeated Paint Branch 55-36 to advance to next week’s Class 4A state championship game.
Northwest (11-2) plays the winner of Saturday’s 1 p.m. Meade (10-2) at Suitland (12-0) game at 7:30 p.m. Friday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
“It’s great. I throw it to everyone,” Pierce said. “It’s good to have a good six or seven people that you can rely on to throw it to every down.”
Pierce completed 29 of 37 passes for 335 yards, throwing six touchdowns to four different players.
Senior Matt Watson caught two touchdown passes and ran for a third.
“We didn’t want to lose, period. We were trying to go to states, and we’re championship bound,” Watson said.
Northwest pulled away late in the fourth quarter. After a red zone stop on fourth down, the Jaguars regained possession deep in their own territory. Following a short-run play, they ran a an end-around for Watson, who sprinted for a 93-yard touchdown to seal the victory.
“It just happens,” said Watson, who has eight postseason touchdowns. “Whoever’s hot on the field, we try to go to them as much as possible.”
Pierce was hot to start the game, completing his first seven pass attempts and 19 of 24 in the first half.
Senior Joshua Gills was his favorite receiving target. Gills caught eight passes for 159 yards and a 32-yard touchdown.
“We just have a bunch of playmakers,” Gills said. “If you get the ball to any of our offensive skill players, something good is going to happen, every single time.”
Northwest’s defense allowed 29 points in the first half but picked up the intensity as the game progressed.
On a rare occasion when the Jaguars offense stalled in the second half, the defense stepped up. After Northwest was stopped on a fourth-and-goal play, senior Rasheed Gillis forced a Paint Branch fumble and helped the Jaguars regain possession. The offense capitalized, with Pierce connecting with Watson for a 21-yard touchdown to extend Northwest’s lead to 43-29.
“We were relying on [the defense] and they definitely stepped up in the second half to help us out,” Pierce said.
Paint Branch quarterback Gaston Cooper completed 15 of 33 passes for 280 yards. The senior struggled in the first half, starting the game with seven consecutive incomplete passes before settling into a rhythm in the second quarter.
Johnny Littlejohn caught two long touchdown passes and ran for a 93-yard first-quarter touchdown to finish with 180 yards from scrimmage. Javan Grafton added 160 receiving yards on five receptions.
Northwest has not won a state title since 2004.
“We just got to execute the next [game]. We’re so close. It’s just so motivating,” Watson said.
Northwest 55, Paint Branch 36
Northwest (11-2) 14 21 8 12 — 55
Paint Branch (11-2) 6 23 7 0 — 36
N — Mark Pierce 1 run (Diego Melendez kick)
P — Johnny Littlejohn 93 run (kick failed)
N — Trint Coulter 4 pass from Mark Pierce (Diego Melendez kick)
P — Darryl Hill Jr. 9 pass from Gaston Cooper (pass failed)
N — E.J. Lee 21 pass from Mark Pierce (Diego Melendez kick)
P — Johnny Littlejohn 25 pass from Gaston Cooper (Johnny Littlejohn run)
N — E.J. Lee 6 pass from Mark Pierce (Diego Melendez kick)
P — Johnny Littlejohn 49 pass from Gaston Cooper (pass failed)
N — Joshua Gills 32 pass from Mark Pierce (Diego Melendez kick)
P — Sam Stewart 29 kick
N — Matt Watson 21 pass from Mark Pierce (Trint Coulter pass from Mark Pierce)
P — Gaston Cooper 6 run (Sam Stewart kick)
N — Matt Watson 13 pass from Mark Pierce (failed)
N — Matt Watson 93 run (failed)
Northwest — Matt Watson 3-109; E.J. Lee 12-70; Mark Pierce 13-15; Rasheed Gillis 7-21; Jamar Wilson 1-(-2); Joshua Gills 2-8.
Paint Branch — Johnny Littlejohn 6-102; Gaston Cooper 12-31; Javan Grafton 1-8; Darryl Hill Jr. 2-7.
Northwest — Mark Pierce 29-37-335-0.
Paint Branch — Gaston Cooper 15-33-280-0.
Northwest — Joshua Gills 8-159; Matt Watson 7-74; E.J. Lee 6-59; Trint Coulter 4-27; Jamar Wilson 4-16.
Paint Branch — Javan Grafton 5-160; Johnny Littlejohn 4-78; Ryan Stango 1-16; Darryl Hill Jr. 4-13 Casey Schmucker 1-11.