ATLANTA — North Gwinnett knows well about battling -- and overcoming -- adversity.
Do it one more time and the Bulldogs' stoicism is set for legend status, as North Gwinnett steels itself for a state championship showdown with Colquitt County in Atlanta.
The Packers too understand resiliency -- Colquitt is just the 10th team in GHSA history to win four straight road playoff game -- and both teams head into Saturday's showdown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a singular focus.
"It’s going to take the same thing we’ve been doing all year, bend don’t break. That’s just what we do," Bulldogs junior defensive back Warrenn Burrell said. "Adversity’s going to come, and it’s up to us whether or not we’re going to sit down or push back, and we’ve been doing that all year."
Burrell is a leader on a defense that has seen off all challenges so far, and while they have allowed points at times -- 16.5 per game and 23 in the playoffs -- they have also made huge plays, including 34 turnovers and 55 sacks, to help provide a rugged platform for a North Gwinnett offense that has mauled most opponents.
After scoring 39 points per game in the regular season, the Bulldogs have upped that to 44.75 in the postseason, as their attack continues to round into form behind quarterback Jimmy Urzua and a pounding ground game. A longtime back-up thrust into the starting role following injury to senior Cade Fortin, a North Carolina commit, Urzua has excelled, passing for 2,263 yards and 23 TDs against just 4 interceptions, while completing 64 percent of his passes -- many of those going to Josh Downs (63 receptions, 1,019 yards, 9 TDs). Meanwhile, Tyler Goodson (1,315 yards, 20 TDs) and Devin Crosby (602 yards, 11 TDs) have helped carry the rushing load, along with Cam Butler (479 yards, 3 TDs), as a stout North Gwinnett offesnive front, led by the University of Georgia-bound Warren Ericson, has cleared the way.
The unit faces perhaps its toughest test of the season, however, in a Packers defense that features athletes everywhere and has tightened in the playoffs, going from 17 ppg allowed in the regular season to 12.25 in postseason play. Colquitt features an imposing linebacker corps that includes juniors Rashad Revels (team-high 185 tackles, 22 for loss) and Marcus Anderson (135 tackles, 22.5 for loss), four-star senior JJ Peterson (110 tackles, 19 for loss) and sophomore Callon Kubiak (95 tackles, 19 for loss).
"They’re all over the place," Bulldogs coach Bill Stewart said. "And the other thing is you’ve got to make sure you protect the football. We’ve, the last couple of weeks, we’ve had a little issue with protecting the football. And it’s cost us. In the game we’ve been able to overcome it. Against Colquitt it’s going to be tough to overcome to many of those mistakes."
The North Gwinnett defense too will be tested by a versatile Colquitt offense that averages 30 points per game and features senior quarterback Steven Krajewski (UConn commit, 2,226 yards passing, 22 TDs, 6 INTs, 65 percent completion rate; 287 rushing, 2 TDs) and running backs Ty Leggett (1,231 yards rushing, 10.1 yards per carry, 11 TDs) and Daijun Edwards (984 yards rushing, 13 TDs). Senior receiver Cam Singletary is also explosivce with 73 receptions for 965 yards and 11 TDs.
Stewart is looking to take his Bulldogs to a summit yet unreached -- in his first season in Suwanee. Yet the focus and determination ingrained in the North Gwinnett locker room means the Bulldogs enter their third state championship game appearance (they finished as runners-up in 2007 and 2013) with plenty of confidence.
"We’re very excited. We’ve kind of prepared for this since the summer," Burrell said. "We’ve been doing a lot of hard work, and coach is drawing up a lot of great game plans, and we’re executing very well. And the way things have been going we plan on winning it."
To do so they will have to deny a Colquitt team looking for its third state title in four seasons (the Packers were back-to-back champs in 2014-15). But after fighting through 14 contests to get here, the Bulldogs are more than ready for anotyher scrap.
"I think it helps being able to overcome adversity all year. We have yet to be in a game where we’ve had every single person playing. So we’ve had to do it all year," Stewart said. "And I think that experience from game one all the way to now builds you to put you in this spot."
NORTH GWINNETT vs. COLQUITT COUNTY
CLASS AAAAAAA STATE FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
NORTH GWINNETT: 13-1, Region 6-AAAAAAA champ
COLQUITT: 11-3, No. 3 seed Region 1-AAAAAAA