The North's defense and special teams didn't waste any time exerting their influence in the first three minutes of Saturday night's Under Armour Senior Bowl with the help of two University of Cincinnati players but the South built a 21-10 halftime lead at Ladd-Peebles Stadium and then extended it to 28-10 when local fav Pat White of nearby Daphne, Ala., fired a 38-yard touchdown pass to Mississippi wide receiver Mike Wallace in the middle of the third quarter.
The South supplied the coup de grace with 8:47 left in the game when Sam Houston State quarterback Rhett Bomar let a screen pass slip out of his hands in the end zone for a fumble recovered for a touchdown by Mississippi defensive lineman Jerry Peria to make the final 35-18.
Penn State wide receiver Derrick Williams had a nice night returning kicks with a 44-yarder and 57-yarder and the 57-yarder answered the fumble touchdown recovery.
But it wasn't enough to prevent Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis from falling to 0-2 in Senior Bowls. Despite the good field position, the South held on fourth-and-nine in the red zone with about six minutes left when Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell's pass across the middle of the end zone to Cal Poly wide receiver Ramses Barden was tipped away by San Jose State defensive back Coye Francies.
With UC nickel back DeAngelo Smith covering USC wide receiver Patrick Turner, South quarterback John Parker Wilson of Alabama overthrew them on third-and-six on the game's first series.
Then when the North went three-and-out, UC punter Kevin Huber boomed a 61-yarder that barely rolled into the end zone for a touchback.
When the North opened the second half with two three-and-outs, Huber had a chance to blast them out of trouble with one of his signature boomers. Standing in his end zone on the second punt, Huber got off a 44-yarder that put West Virginia's White in pretty good shape as he closed in on a local MVP award. Wallace appeared to run past DeAngelo Smith in coverage on the 38-yarder.
"That was the only one I'd like to have back," said Huber who finished with a no-return average of 49 yards.
The South got on the board first on its second series when it did what it wasn't supposed to do and ran on the North well enough to keep it for 7:28 to produce Wilson's four-yard touchdown run up the middle on a quarterback draw for a 7-0 lead the South took into the second series.
It was a good series for the South offensive line. Left tackle Michael Oher had no problem fending off pressure as Wilson converted a third-and-two scramble following heavy pressure and completed two third-down passes. On the last one, Florida State wide receiver Greg Carr wrestled a slant over the middle from Smith at the 5.
Before that play Connecticut cornerback Darius Butler should have had an end-zone interception after he did a job good muscling Turner one-on-one on the outside and not letting him inside. But he couldn't get off Turner in time to pick off a Wilson floater to the inside.
Louisville's Eric Wood, making his first appearance at right guard after becoming a top prospect at center, also had a good series. When he pulled to the left, Liberty running back Rashad Jennings followed him for an 18-yard gain a snap after Jennings picked up nine wide right.
Huber drilled his second punt of the night inside the 20 when it was fumbled out-of-bounds at the South 13 by Arizona wide receiver Mike Thomas.
That play, coupled with South punter Thomas Morstead's 38-yard punt led to Utah kicker Louie Sakoda's 38-yard field goal with 14:02 that cut the lead to 7-3.
But White set up a touchdown that put the South up, 14-3, with 9:42 left in the first half on a 68-yard drive it flashed its speed advantage. A snap after White flipped a 33-yard screen pass to North Carolina State running back Andre Brown aided by missed tackles at the linebacker level, he deked out the defense with a fake handoff left that turned into a 13-yard run off a rollout right.
With both offensive lines rotating consistently and Wood on the bench for the South, LSU running back Quinn Johnson followed Arkansas center Jonathan Luigs and Caldwell, after he moved to left guard for a one-yard touchdown run.
Cincinnati's Connor Barton, announced with the offense, played right end for the North on that series and made the tackle on the snap before the touchdown. He also got around LSU tackle Herman Johnson to knock down a Wilson pass on one of his handful of defensive snaps.
The guys who were supposed to step up for the South did, particularly the USC linebackers. Brian Cushing rocked Oregon State lineman Andy Levitre a few yards back on a running play and then middle linebacker Rey Maualuga forced a fumble at the South 41 when he stripped Virginia running back Cedric Peerman with about five minutes left in the half.
That set up the South's third touchdown drive led by a third different quarterback, but Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper also used a missed tackle to his advantage, Butler, the Deion-mentored corner, whiffed the tackle on a short pass and it ended up in Thomas' 32-yard gain.
With Wood, at center, getting a fine drive block on his California workout partner, Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji, Andre Brown scored from one yard out to make it 21-3 with 1:51 left in the half.
Then the North's third quarterback, Central Arkansas' Nathan Brown, generated its first touchdown on a 62-second drive that ended with his play-action four-yard touchdown pass to Oregon running back Jeremiah Johnson. The North got a 44-yard kick return from Williams, and Johnson ripped off a 16-yard run working behind an interior line of two centers with Cal's Alex Mack at left guard and Oregon center Max Unger lined up with Cincinnati right guard Trevor Canfield.
The 5-8, 198-pound Johnson also scooted for a 22-yard catch out of the backfield to start the drive.
The South didn't have huge numbers on the ground (88 yards on 23 carries) in the half, but it was more than expected after the kind of week Raji and friends had in practice.
But Raji did nothing to hurt his rising top 10 stock on a night he noticed the South coaches running away from him.
After White made it 28-10, it didn't get much better for the North. In the last two minutes of the third quarter, Purdue running back Kory Sheets broke a 20-yard run for a touchdown but it was called back on a holding call accessed to Illinois left tackle Xavier Fulton on a play Barwin made a good block at tight end.
Barwin played tight end for much of that series and was on the field with 14:19 left in the game when Navy running back Eric Kettani scored from one yard out and he made a good inside block that sprung Jeremiah Johnson on a successful two-point conversion on a sweep left that cut the lead to 28-18.
PREGAME NOTES: As expected, both coaches got as many of their top-rated centers as they could into the starting lineups.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis opened with California's Alex Mack snapping to Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell and Oregon's Max Unger at left guard for the North. The Jags' Jack Del Rio started Alabama teammates John Parker Wilson under Antoine Caldwell and Louisville's Eric Wood at right guard for the South.
Lewis planned to play Harrell and Mack together, followed by Virginia Tech center Ryan Shuman snapping to Central Arkansas quarterback Nathan Brown, and then Sam Houston State quarterback Rhett Bomar getting the ball from Unger. The three combos were to play at least two straight series.
With Connecticut's Darius Butler and and Virginia Tech's Macho Harris starting at cornerback, University of Cincinnati's DeAngelo Smith played nickel corner for the North as well as returned punts.
Lining up next to top ten emerging Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji was Missouri tackle Ziggy Hood. The South opened with its star-studded corps of linebackers that put USC's Rey Maualuga in the middle and teammate Brian Cushing and Mississippi's Ashlee Palmer on the outside.
Cincinnati's Connor Barwin, scheduled to play at tight end and wide receiver, was announced with the offense.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
NFL Network can't get enough of Lewis. After miking him at Monday's practice, the network planned to clip an ear piece to the back of his collar before the game.
Then with the aid of Bengals assistant public relations director P.J. Combs, during the game they would get word to Lewis to put the thing in his ear so they could ask him a question.
What's next? Huddle reporters?
NFL Network analyst Charles Davis thinks the only guys that really need to have a big game Saturday are the players that struggled during the week. He was thinking of two guys for the North in Cal-Poly wide receiver Ramses Barden and Missouri safety William Moore.
"If you have a bad week and then a bad game, and now they're wondering," Davis said.
One of the NFL's truly great scouts, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, is a revered Alabama native so he was at home in the Ladd-Peebles Stadium press box before the game.
One of Newsome's better moves this season on the way to the Ravens' march to the AFC title was game was picking up 12-year right tackle Willie Anderson, a Mobile native, after he didn't agree to a reduced deal a week before the opener.
How small of a world? The mother of Newsome's wife worked with Anderson's mother in a Mobile elementary school cafeteria.
"You play against a guy like Willie two times a year and you have great respect for him," Newsome said. "We had a lot of young guys on our line and they needed a mentor and he provided one for us. He was great for us."
Anderson, 33, said he wouldn't think about the question of retirement until after the season. Asked if he'll be back, Newsome said, "I don't know. We'll talk about it."
Former Alabama running back Shaun Alexander, a Greater Cincinnati from Florence, Ky., took the field in pregame as the newest member of the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame.