SUWANEE — Cameron Clark clutched the football like a mother hen guarding one of her eggs. And why not.
The ball is sure to be a interesting center-piece for years to come after the North Gwinnett junior kicker used that very ball to boot the Bulldogs into the history books Friday night at Tom Robinson Stadium.
Clark’s wobbly, sideways 38-yard field goal had just enough air to crawl over the crossbar as time expired to lift the Bulldogs to a thrilling 19-17 come-from-behind victory over Colquitt County and capture the Class 7A state championship, the first-ever for the long-time program.
Meanwhile, Rabun County's historic run for a first-ever state title came to a crashing end Friday night in Tiger as the Wildcats fell 35-23 to Hapeville Charter in the Class 2A title game.
It was an unexpected ending to a wild final 49 seconds, especially after Clark suffered an injury in pregame warmups and had already missed a field goal in the first quarter and a crucial extra point in the fourth quarter that nearly opened the door for the Packers to steal the title.
“I just tried not to think about the injury or the misses,” Clark said. “I just tried to focus on making the kick. I was just overwhelmed with emotion when I saw it go through. I’ll definitely remember this for quite a while. Just an unbelievable feeling.”
Senior quarterback Jimmy Urzua, who overcame his own rough start to the championship game, never wavered in his belief of Clark.
“I knew he was going to make it. I never doubted it for a second,” Urzua said. “We just told him he had it and not to worry about the other (kicks). It was just an unbelievable feeling when it went through.”
Clark’s heroics would never have been if not for Urzua engineering a drive for the ages in the final 49 seconds after Colquitt County had claimed a 17-16 lead with an 80-yard drive that chewed up 5:01 of the fourth quarter and culminated with a 13-yard touchdown pass from UConn-commit Steven Krajewski to Josh Hadley.
On the final drive, Urzua, who opened the game with five straight incompletions and a fumbled snap, connected with LJ Fisher for 14 yards, Josh Downs for 10 yards, and then Tyler Goodson for 11 yards to move the Bulldogs to the Colquitt 45 with 32 seconds left. The drive appeared stalled, however, after two hurried incompletions and a sack of Urzua with just 9 seconds left.
But a wild series of penalties by the Packers (11-4) helped set the stage for the dramatic finish. On the sack of Urzua, Colquitt was called for defensive holding keeping the drive alive. The Packers then had 13 men on the field and then 12 men on the field on consecutive plays, On the next play with 3 seconds left the Packers committed a pass interference penalty with no time left that moved the ball to the Colquitt 26 and gave the Bulldogs a free play with no time on the clock.
After a North Gwinnett timeout, out trotted Clark instead of Urzua and the offense. North Gwinnett coach Bill Stewart said there was no debate about whether to take one last shot at a pass into the end zone or give Clark a chance at redemption.
“Cameron had a tough day with all that was going on but once we got close we were going to give him a shot,” Stewart said. “We believe in him and he came through. It was the same situation we put him in every day in practice. Just amazing.”
“The team got us into that position so that I could get a chance,” Clark said. “They believed in me and that means a lot.”
In a odd twist of fate, if not for Clark’s missed extra point after Cameron Butler’s 1-yard run with 5:50 left in the game broke a 10-10, the two teams might still be playing.
The defenses dominated the entire first half surrendering just one field goal each, a 49-yard blast by the Packers’ Ryan Fitzgerald to cap their opening drive of the game, and a 29-yarder by Clark early in the second quarter.
The two offenses came in averaging nearly 800 yards a game combined but Colquitt County managed just 128 total first half yards, getting only 63 yards passing from Krajewski, who came in averaging 159 yards a game through the air. The Bulldogs (14-1) didn’t fare much better tallying 126 total yards and just 38 yards passing from Urzua in the first half.
But North Gwinnett fired out of the halftime taking the opening drive of the third quarter 80 yards in just six plays, capped by an 18-yard touchdown run from Tyler Goodson for a 10-3 lead.
After trading punts, the Packers answered with an even quicker 60-yard, 4-play drive, highlighted by a 50-yard pass from Krajewski to Camari Louis setting up his own 1-yard plunge to tie the game.
It stayed that way until the thrilling final six minutes.
The key for the Bulldogs turned out to be senior backup running back Butler, who pounded out 60 yards on the ground in the second half after the Packers had neutralized Goodson. Butler was awarded the State Farm Game Ball at the end of the contest for his efforts.
“Cameron is such a strong runner,” Stewart said. “He really picked us up when we needed something.”
When asked what it meant to him as a first-year coach to win a state title, Stewart said it may take a while to sink in completely.
“This is just a group that loves each other and is so fun to coach,” he said. “I can’t really explain this feeling right now. It’s a lot to absorb.”
The Bulldogs defense was once again outstanding on the biggest stage. They held the Packers to just 110 yards rushing, only 51 in the second half, and less than half of their 2017 playoff output. Krajewski was just 14-of-24 for 162 yards and one touchdown.
Urzua shined at the right time for North Gwinnett. He was a dismal 5-of-11 for 38 yards and one interception in the first half. He went 8-of-10 for 98 yards in the second half. Downs had 7 catches for 59 yards and Fisher had 3 catches for 46 yards and all three gave the Bulldogs crucial first downs.
Senior North Gwinnett linebacker Jayden McDonald, a Rutgers-commit, had another solid game when his team needed him. McDonald recorded a pair of sacks and three quarterback hurries. He also drew two holding calls and should have been awarded another holding call on the Packers final drive while chasing down a scrambling Krajewski.
NOTES: It was the Bulldogs first title in their third try. They lost the 2007 and 2013 state title games. ... It was the first loss in a championship game for the Packers since 2010. They won back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2015. ... The victory for North Gwinnett set a new mark for wins in a season (14) breaking the old mark of 13 set in their other two state championship game appearance seasons of 2007 and 2013.
Colquitt Co......3.....0....7....7 -- 17
N. Gwinnett.....0.....3....7....9 -- 19
C -- Fitzgerald 49 FG 3-0, 8:16
N -- Clark 29 FG 3-3, 8:26
N -- Goodson 18 run (Clark kick) 10-3, 9:35
C -- Louis 1 run (Fitzgerald kick) 10-10, 4:14
N -- Butler 1 run (kick failed) 16-10, 5:50
C -- Hadley 13 pass from Krajewski (Fitzgerald kick), 17-16, 0:49
N -- Clark 38 FG 19-17, 0:00