ROCK HILL -- Bluffton's new lease on life came to a swift end here Friday night.
Five days after seeing their football season resurrected thanks to the disqualification of Goose Creek, the Bobcats' inaugural year in Class 4-A finally came to a close with a 44-30 defeat at the hands of Northwestern in the Division II semifinals.
"It hurts," said senior quarterback C.J. Frazier, who held back tears as he walked off the field. "This is all I ever really knew."
The Bobcats talked all week about maximizing their opportunities in this, their second chance. Bluffton lost in the quarterfinals, 35-25, last week to the Gators before the nationally-ranked team was barred from the postseason for using an ineligible player.
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Bluffton made the most of its playoff revival through Friday's first half. The Bobcats took a 10-0 lead into the locker room after the high-octane Northwestern offense turned the ball over three times, including a pair of red zone possessions that ended without points. The Bobcats, meanwhile, capitalized with scores on their first two drives, highlighted by K.J. Ford's 1-yard touchdown plunge.
"We thought we had the game at halftime," running back Tykeem Major said. " ... I honestly thought we were going to the state championship."
But a different Trojans team came out for the third quarter. Led by junior quarterback Mason Rudolph, Northwestern scored on all six of its second-half possessions and also ran back a kickoff for a touchdown as the Trojans clinched their fifth state championship appearance in six years.
"Coaches encouraged us to keep fighting and keep going, and we did," Rudolph said. "We came out in the second half fired up and we kept rolling."
The two teams traded scores on their opening possessions of the second half, as the Bobcats (12-2) took a 17-7 advantage midway through the third quarter on Marquis Webber's 3-yard scoring plunge.
But after Rontavius McClure pulled the Trojans (12-2) back to within 3 thanks to a 48-yard touchdown grab, Northwestern took the lead for good after a rare turnover from Frazier.
With pressure coming from the outside, the senior signal-caller ran to his right before attempting to throw the ball out of bounds. Instead, his ill-advised pass fell into the hands of cornerback O'Darryl Davis-Douglas, who brought the ball back to the Bluffton 20.
Two plays later, LaThomas Long took it in from 15 yards out and the Trojans never looked back.
"You can't make mistakes in the 4-A playoffs," Frazier said. "That's just how it is."
In all, Northwestern outscored its counterparts from the Lowcountry by a 44-20 margin over the final 24 minutes.
"If we thought our season was over and we got a second chance, we'd try to take advantage of it," Rudolph said. "We knew if they came out strong they would be a hard team to beat."
The Bobcats clung to life midway through the final frame as Demetrius Smalls' 44-yard touchdown grab over the top of the Trojans defense pulled Bluffton back to within 5. But on the ensuing kickoff, Jaquavious MacKey raced 85 yards to the end zone to salt the game away, delivering Northwestern a 2010 state championship rematch with Greenwood next weekend at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.
"I thought we were going to make it," a deflated Frazier said.
The Bobcats, meanwhile, will return to the drawing board after another playoff run came up short. Bluffton lost in last year's Class 3-A state title game to South Pointe and fell in the Lower State championship the year before that.
They'll do so without their most decorated class returning for another year as Frazier and Major, among others, bid adieu.
"I think we got too cocky," Major said. "(We) thought the game was over. I don't know. We just fell short."
Northwestern 44, Bluffton 30
Bluffton High 10 0 7 13 -- 30
Northwestern 0 0 21 22 -- 44
BLF--Mallie Sprouse 28 kick, 7:01.
BLF--K.J. Ford 1 rush (Sprouse kick), 2:44.
NW--Dupree Hart 4 rush (Sully Foy kick), 9:40.
BLF--Marquis Webber 3 rush (Sprouse kick), 4:33.
NW-- Rontavius McClure 48 catch from Mason Rudolph (Foy kick), 3:28.
NW--LaThomas Long 15 rush (Foy kick), 1:50.
NW--Rudolph 1 rush (Foy kick), 7:31.
BLF--Demetrius Smalls 44 catch from C.J. Frazier (rush failed), 6:50.
NW--Jaquavious MacKey 85 kick return (McClure catch), 6:37.
NW--Rudolph 30 rush (McClure catch), 2:28.
BLF--Gerald Roberson 1 rush (Sprouse kick), 0:21.
First Downs 24 23
Rushes-Yards 45-208 35-255
Comp-Att-Int 17-30-1 14-26-1
Passing Yards 199 149
Punts-Avg 3-44 1-47
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 3-2
Penalties-Yards 12-104 5-45
Third-Down Conv 6-12 7-9
Fourth-Down Conv 1-2 0-1
PASSING: BLF -- C.J. Frazier 16-28-1-188, Vinny Boni 1-1-0-11, Mallie Sprouse 0-1; NW -- Mason Rudolph 14-26-1-149.
RUSHING: BLF -- Tykeem Major 17-85, Gerald Roberson 12-72, Marquis Webber 2-24, B.J. Hill 1-14, C.J. Frazier 4-9, K.J. Ford 3-6, Vinny Boni 4-(-1), Demetrius Smalls 2-(-1); NW -- LaThomas Long 15-140, Mason Rudolph 12-62, Dupree Hart 8-53.
RECEIVING: BLF -- Demetrius Smalls 4-81, Marquis Webber 6-61, Vinny Boni 3-46, Gerald Roberson 4-11; NW -- Rontavius McClure 5-72, Mustafia Love 4-38, LaThomas Long 2-23, Dupree Hart 2-9, Jared Balasco 1-7.