By Steven Zaitz
Almost exactly one year ago, the Northport Football Tigers held a two-touchdown lead against perennial power Lindenhurst and were six minutes away from playing for a Suffolk County title.
But a missed extra point, a ton of costly penalties and two late scores by the Bulldogs were all part of a disastrous 4th quarter sequence that ended the Tigers’ season on that cold, wet and dreadful night on the Great South Bay. Northport would need to wait fifty-one weeks for a chance at retribution. They would have it.
In a stirring performance, led by backup quarterback Macklin O’Brien’s three touchdown tosses and a relentless pass rush that registered nine sacks, the Tigers crushed Lindenhurst this past Saturday, 21-7 in Northport, to advance to the Suffolk Conference II Final against the Bellport Clippers. This high-stakes game will be played at Stony Brook University on Friday, November 18.
O’Brien, filling in for Tiger star QB Owen Johansen, who broke his ankle against Bellport and was lost for the season four weeks ago, had his best day throwing the ball. He completed 7 of 9 passes for 149 and three scores and did not turn the ball over — a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3.
Despite the pressure growing with each passing round of the playoffs, O’Brien has remained cool and collected on the field and off. “I just try to stay focused and keep improving,” said the lanky senior. “When I first stepped in for Owen, I had some pretty big shoes to fill but with each week, I’ve gotten more comfortable.”
The Tigers lost that game against Bellport, when O’Brien was thrust into the spotlight midway through the first quarter. Since then, The Tigers are 4-0 in games he has started.
“Macklin works hard, and he’s always worked hard, that’s just the way he is,” said Tiger Head Coach Pat Campbell. “He’s a really good athlete and I know some people felt the sky was falling when Owen got hurt, but nobody in our room felt that way. Good teams pick each other up and rely on the guy next to them and I think having that mentality from everyone —players and coaches — has fostered success for the whole team and for Mack.”
The opening drive of the game was a symbol of this success for O’Brien as well as their All-Suffolk tight end Andrew Miller. Miller took a short rollout pass from O’Brien and rambled 56 yards down the far sideline on the very first play from scrimmage. Miller would score three plays later beating double coverage in the back-right corner of the end zone and the Tigers led 7-0 barely two minutes into the game.
Despite this explosive start, the rest of the first half was kind of a snooze-fest, as the teams traded fruitless drives in and around the middle of the field for the better part of two quarters.
However, with less than a minute to go in the half, Lindenhurst quarterback Christian Capogna scrambled for 20 yards to the Northport 12-yard line. On the next play, Bulldog superstar Chris Carson, who is a finalist for the Hansen award that is given to the Most Valuable Player in Suffolk County, caught a touchdown pass at the pylon with six seconds remaining in the half. This tied the score at 7-7 and took a lot of the air out of the blue and gold balloon going into halftime.
But it would get refilled in short order.
After stopping Lindenhurst three and out to start the second half, the combination of O’Brien to Miller would do damage again as they connected on a 38-yard TD strike down the middle of the field. Miller beat his man, safety Dominick Artale, on a simple post pattern and O’Brien lofted a perfect rainbow to Miller just as he crossed the goal line.
Miller had his second touchdown catch of the day and the Tigers took the lead back with just three minutes gone in the 3rd quarter.
“Macklin has adjusted great, and he’s been very focused since he took over the offense,” said Miller. “On the second touchdown, I made a move to get the defender to flip his hips and Mack threw a great ball that led me right into the end zone.”
Miller had 4 receptions for 117 yards and 2 touchdowns on the day. He also had a big third down run with a 12 yard rush up the middle, keeping a drive alive in the third quarter. This led to a 31-yard TD dart from O’Brien to wide receiver Nick Valenti, giving the Tigers a 21-7 lead. It was quite a day for Miller, but his offensive output is only half the story.
The senior is also a big part of the Tiger defense that took up residence in the Bulldog backfield all day. In addition to the nine sacks, one of which was by Miller, Northport limited Lindenhurst to a puny 110 yards of total offense and there would be no blown leads for the Tigers this time around.
Defensive linemen Matt Diaz and Nick Tzimas each had three sacks and All County linebacker Tim Cleary had one. Safety Michael Campoli had nine total tackles, and linemen Thomas Kraus and Matt Lugo had seven each in what was a master class in defensive football. Campbell has pushed all the right buttons this year in increasing reps for guys who had reduced roles before Johansen’s injury. Tzimas, who just started playing organized football this year, is one of those guys.
“It’s been a bit of a learning curve, especially in the beginning,” said Tzimas, who is also a star lacrosse defenseman for the Tigers. “It’s very cool to be able to make an impact and it seemed like every play at least one or two of us was chasing down their quarterback.”
Lindenhurst switched up their offensive alignment on the fly, trying in desperation to find anything to generate sustained drives. Nothing worked.
Carson, who can do anything asked of him on a football field, is primarily a wide receiver. But Lindenhurst Head Coach Nick Lombardo had him running a wildcat-type offense at quarterback for a good chunk of the second half. He was bottled up for much of what must have been a frustrating day, his last in a Lindenhurst uniform.
“We didn’t play Lindy-tough football today,” said Carson. “There is nobody to really point the finger at. It was all of us and there really is no excuse for it.”
The Tigers manhandled the Bulldogs in the regular season meeting, beating them 19-0 in early October. Dominating a team of this caliber by a composite 40-7 is no small feat and thus they are rewarded with their first trip to a final such as this since they won the Large School Championship in 1991. They beat Bellport 28-9 that day and the rematch comes 31 years later with the stakes just as high.
“We’ve had a nice year and a lot of success so far,” Campbell said. “The way the chips have fallen this year, we’ve had to overcome a lot of adversity. The kids are the ones that make it all happen and I’m just interested to see where it all ends up.”
As the Tigers face the team that dealt them their last loss, knocked out their star player and in many ways, set them on their current trajectory, the entire Suffolk County High School Football universe will be watching with interest as well.