GAINESVILLE -- On Friday night, North Hall football and Andrew Smith served notice:
Underestimate us at your own risk.
The Trojans showed plenty of grit and determination on defense, while Smith provided just enough offensive fireworks to help North Hall past Morgan County 13-9 at The Brickyard, pushing the Trojans back into the state quarterfinals for the first time in five years.
"This is amazing; what a feeling," said Smith -- a junior playmaker whose determination and ability more than overshadow his size, as he proved by scoring both Trojans touchdowns and picking off a pass to help set up a third round showdown with Peach County next Friday.
"I hear about being short from my teammates giving me a hard time, but I just try to go out there and do my thing," said Smith, who acts as punt returner, a change of pace quarterback and starting safety.
Smith's play-making ability helped stake the Trojans (10-2) to a 13-0 first quarter lead -- and the North Hall defense did the rest, stoning Morgan County's grinding rushing attack in the second half, allowing just 12 yards after halftime.
"What an incredible performance by our defense, by our whole team really," said Trojans coach Bob Christmas after watching his team win its ninth straight home playoff game. "It's so great that we were able to get back into the quarterfinals with this team. This is a great group of guys, and they've worked so hard all season."
North Hall fought throughout, digging deep in the second half to put up 149 yards of its 239 total. And while the Trojans were held scoreless -- Morgan County forcing two turnovers on downs inside their own 10-yard line -- the Trojans defense proved impregnable over the final 24 minutes, allowing just 31 yards and three first downs (two coming via penalty).
"Our coaches challenged us at the half to not let up on defense," said Smith, who finished with 57 yards rushing on four carries -- TJ Tate led the Trojans with 98 yards on 15 carries. "This is just a great feeling to get this program back out of the dumps."
Smith made an early impact, producing all of North Hall's scoring -- the first coming on a 55-yard punt return with 6:29 left in the first quarter. The fleet-footed junior eluded two tackles, reversed field, picked up two blocks and outran the rest of the Morgan County defense for a 7-0 lead.
Smith then stepped up on defense, halting a Bulldogs drive with a leaping interception at his own 45. The turnover set up another big play for the junior, who stepped in at quarterback and ripped off a 46-yard touchdown run around left end for a 13-0 Trojans advantage (the point after attempt failed) with 1:36 left in the quarter.
Morgan County (9-3) wasn't ready to yield, however, and fired back in the second quarter. Making headway with its rushing attack the Bulldogs, manufactured a 74-yard scoring drive, capped by a three-yard dive by Marquis Benton with 10:58 left in the half.
Morgan finished the half with 178 yards rushing, including 52 for Benton, but North Hall kept the Bulldogs in check by forcing turnovers, including a drive-stopping fumble recovery from Devon Motes at the Trojans 48. Yet Morgan County -- which allowed 90 yards in the first half -- fought through two giveaways to trim North Hall's lead to 13-9 at the interval thanks to Campbell Harrison's 51-yard field goal as time expired.
North Hall began to re-assert its own ground game after the interval but couldn't make anything out of it in third quarter -- despite driving inside the Bulldogs' 2-yard line. Morgan County's defense hit Trojans quarterback Bradley Brown for a two-yard loss on fourth and goal -- though North Hall's defense kept the momentum swing to a minimum, forcing a punt after the turnover on downs at the Bulldog 19.
The Trojans played out a similar scenario in the fourth quarter, as Morgan County's defense held again in the shadow of its own goalpost. This time the Bulldogs stuffed TJ Tate on fourth and 3 at the 7 with 8:00 remaining. Yet again North Hall's defense responded, forcing a turnover on downs at the Trojans 47 before forcing another turnover on downs with under a minute to play to seal the win.
"We missed some opportunities that would have made things easier for us," Christmas said. "And looking back, I probably should have kicked a field goal at least once there in the second half. But we kept fighting and battling, and these kids really showed something. They love playing at home. We play well here. And we get another chance to do that next week."
Morgan Co....0....9....0....0 -- 9
North Hall....13....0....0....0 -- 13
NHHS -- Smith 55 punt return (Cruz kick) 6:29, 7-0
NHHS -- Smith 41 run (kick failed) 13-0
MC -- Benton 3 run (kick failed) 10:58, 13-6
MC -- Harrison 51 field goal, :00, 13-9