SUWANEE — A smiling Bill Stewart accepted and then held the game ball high over his head as he was swamped by a sea of red-clad fans and players. But the first-year North Gwinnett coach refused to take credit for his Bulldogs dispatching McEachern 38-17 Friday night in the Class 7A semifinals at Tom Robinson Stadium.
“It really represents the kids and what they have achieved,” Stewart said. “I’m just so proud of how they handled adversity. So many times in this game things went bad. And every time they just kind of shrugged it off and kept moving forward.”
And it was as ominous a start as you could get for the Bulldogs. They touched the ball just twice in the first five minutes and fumbled both times eventually setting up the Indians’ first score of the game.
North Gwinnett forced a quick McEachern three-and-out on the opening possession but fumbled the punt and the Indians recovered at the Bulldogs 37. The North Gwinnett defense would hold again but quarterback Jimmy Urzua and running back Tyler Goodson fumbled the handoff on their first offensive play and McEachern recovered at the Bulldogs 5.
The Indians’ Paris Brown made them pay scoring two plays later on a 3-yard run for a 7-0 lead just four minutes in.
It was the first deficit the Bulldogs (13-1) had faced in the 2017 playoffs.
“The coaches just told us to keep our heads up and keep playing,” Urzua said. “No one panicked. But it wasn’t the way we wanted to start things, that’s for sure.”
Urzua also missed on his first five passes but Goodson, who had not fumbled in the first three playoff games spanning over 100 carries, finally found his legs with 5 carries for 37 yards helping move the Bulldogs to the Indians 7. But on his sixth carry Goodson was drilled by linebacker Dante Fleming and the ball popped into the air with McEachern’s McKenzie Mosley recovering at the 5.
Both defenses dominated as they forced five turnovers combined in the first half. North Gwinnett’s D.J. Turner picked off one of two McEachern passes in the first half.
It looked like it may go to the half with McEachern holding the slim 7-0 lead but North Gwinnett’s offense finally found a gear in the final four minutes. The Bulldogs needed just five plays to go 80 yards, with a 46-yard reverse by Javonni Cunningham setting up a 7-yard Urzua touchdown run with 2:00 minutes left.
After a short kickoff, McEachern was poised to strike back just as fast when Brown broke around left end for 39 yards to the Bulldogs 14 with just 1:12 left. But Quinton Newsome turned the momentum picking off freshman quarterback Carlos Del-Rio and returning it 43-yards to the Indians 47 with 1:00 left in the half.
“They had run that play before and I saw it and just jumped (the rout),” Newsome said. “It was a risk but I knew I could make the play.”
Urzua more than made up for his rough start with his finish to the half. He connected on a 28-yard pass to Cunningham and then an 8-yard TD pass to Josh Downs with just 3 seconds left to give the Bulldogs a 14-7 halftime lead.
“The interception and the touchdown at the end of the half were huge,” Urzua said. “Our defense was big-time tonight. We needed them.”
Brown had 119 yards on 13 carries for the Indians in the first half. But, he finished with just 149 yards after he was held to just 30 yards on 9 carries in the second half.
Goodson had 65 yards on 15 carries while Urzua rebounded to go 6-of-11 for 79 yards passing in the first half. Urzua finished a modest 10-of-19 for 140 yards but Goodson heated up in the second half finishing with 150 yards on 27 attempts.
The Bulldogs wasted little time getting the cushion they wanted in the second half. They opened things up on the first drive of the third quarter when Urzua found LJ Fisher on a slant pattern who then raced 32-yards serpentining through five defenders for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead just 2:08 in the second half.
“The score right before the half was big but I thought we were able to get control of things with the start in the third quarter,” Stewart said.
The teams traded 27-yard field goals on their next possessions but the Bulldogs were forced to settle after a 19-yard touchdown run by Goodson was called back for holding.
It again settled down into a defensive struggle until the Indians recovered their fourth fumble of the game on a sack of Urzua. The ball pinballed through several attempts to recover by both teams until McEachern’s Cameron Moon jumped on it at the North Gwinnett 5.
Two plays later Brown added his second score of the game on a 4-yard run to pull the Indians within 24-17 with 8:29 left.
North Gwinnett sealed the game with a pair of touchdowns in a 21-second span and forced two more turnovers in the final two minutes. Urzua found Goodson on an 18-yard pass on a crucial 3rd-and-7 and then Goodson rambled 43-yards for his second touchdown of the game for a 31-17 lead.
Two plays later Jayden McDonald ripped the ball out of a McEachern receiver’s arms and raced 20-yards for the final score. Bulldogs’ sophomore linebacker William Long snagged a tipped pass on the Indians final play and North Gwinnett ran out the final minute.
Now, the Bulldogs will go for their first state title next week taking on Colquitt County, a 31-14 winner over Brookwood in the other semifinal, in the Class 7A championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday. It is North Gwinnett’s third appearance in a state title game, the last coming in 2013.
“It’s just awesome to have this chance,” Urzua. ““It’s been my dream since day one and it’s finally coming true.”
Stewart said they had no preference despite the opportunity for an all-Gwinnett County final.
“We didn’t care,” he said. “At this point whoever you play will be a great team. We’re just excited to have the opportunity.”
McEachern........7......0.....3.....7 -- 17
N. Gwinnett.......0....14....10...14 -- 38
M -- Brown 3 run (Rodriquez kick) 7-0, 7:57
N -- Urzua 7 run (Clark kick) 7-7, 2:00
N -- Downs 7 pass from Urzua (Clark kick) 14-7, 0:03
N -- LJ Fisher 32 pass from Urzua (Clark kick) 21-7, 9:52
M -- Rodriquez 27 FG 21-10, 6:02
N -- Clark 27 FG 24-10, 3:19
M -- Brown 4 run (Rodriquez kick) 24-17, 8:29
N -- Goodson 43 run (Clark kick) 31-17, 2:13
N -- Turner 20 fumble return (Clark kick) 38-17, 1:52