North Gwinnett's C.J. Leggett (7) breaks a tackle by McEachern's Daryus Thomson (8) during the first half of Friday's semifinal game. (Photo: Craig Cappy)
POWDER SPRINGS — Just one more play.
Despite carrying a two-score lead throughout much of the fourth quarter of Friday night’s Class AAAAAA state semifinal game against McEachern, that is what North Gwinnett players constantly kept saying to themselves in the final minutes.
Finally, when the Indians’ T.J. Rahming was tackled in bounds and short of a first down at the McEachern 42 and allowed the clock to run out preserving No. 4 state-ranked North’s’ 27-21 victory at Walter Cantrell Stadium — only then did the Bulldogs allow themselves to celebrate.
“That’s kind of the way the year’s gone,” a soaked, yet relieved North coach Bob Sphire said after his Bulldogs (13-1) endured a near hour-long lightning delay coming out of halftime to advance to the state title game for just the second time in school history, where they will take on Region 7-AAAAAA rival Norcross next week at the Georgia Dome. “But it gives us another week. … This was not a pretty game, but it was a gut check game.”
Both teams underwent gut checks through the stormy evening.
North passed its test by building a lead behind 287 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries from C.J. Leggett, while McEachern (11-3) tried for a third late comeback this postseason by pulling to withing 27-21 on a 7-yard Bailey Hockman to Artise Clark TD pass with 2:33 remaining.
However, Brandt Cameron emerged from a huge pile-up on the ensuing onside kick to allow Leggett and the Bulldogs to run the clock down to 15 seconds.
Michael D’Angola, who was 2 of 3 on field goal attempts for the night, then managed to kick the ball out of bounds away from Taj Griffin, who returned a punt 85 yards with time running out to allow the Indians to beat Collins Hill in last week’s quarterfinal.
And the final play with Rahming being tackled in bounds finally allowed the Bulldogs to breathe a sigh of relief.
“I couldn’t watch (the last few minutes),” Leggett admitted. “I had to turn away.”
But there was no turning away Leggett throughout the evening, especially after McEachern seemed to grab momentum with Hockman’s 38-yard TD pass to Trey Scott on fourth down to pull the Indians even at 14-all with 8:13 left in the third quarter.
An exchange of interceptions by McEachern’s Christian Ford and North’s Tony Bradford set the Bulldogs up at their own 47, where Hayden Sphire made a check off at the line and handed to Leggett.
The senior then broke a tackle and outraced the secondary for a 53-yard score that put North in front 21-14 with 3:29 left in the period.
D’Angola then added field goals of 46 and 25 yards in the fourth quarter to give North a two-score lead, setting up the final frantic minutes.
The first half was defined as much by each team’s mistakes as it was by their successes.
North turned the ball over three times in the first half, the first on the game’s first play from scrimmage when Rahmoi Parsons intercepted Hayden Sphire and returned it 18 yards to the Bulldogs’ 27-yard line.
On the next snap, Ty Clemons hit T.J. Rahming in the right corner of the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown that gave McEachern a 7-0 lead just 19 seconds after the opening kickoff.
But North struck back quickly thanks to Leggett, who broke of a 66-yard run on the the second snap of the next possession, and eventually finished the seven-play, 80-yard drive with a 2-yard run into the end zone to tie the game 7-7 with 9:07 left in the opening frame.
North had a chance to gain the lead, with Leggett leading march deep into McEachern territory.
However, the senior had the ball stripped from him, and the Glenn Frazier scooped up the loose ball at the Indians’ 21 to keep the game tied.
But while turnovers were North’s biggest nemesis in the first half, penalties dogged McEachern in the opening 24 minutes, especially in the second quarter.
First, a holding penalty negated a 24-yard TD pass from Clemons to Malik Williams, and North’s Ali Edwards picked off a batted pass on the next play to keep the Indians out of the end zone.
Then, in the final minutes of the half, it looked like McEachern had converted a fake punt for a first down, only to have the play nullified by a false start flag.
And after the Indians’ ensuing punt bounced backwards and landed just 13 yards away at the McEachern 40 with 2:07 left in the half.
Eight plays later, with North out of timeouts and facing first and goal at the 2, Sphire rolled to his right and threw back across his body towards the back of the end zone.
Nate Brown leapt high in the air and snagged the ball and tip-toed the back line of the end zone with five seconds left in the half, sending the Bulldogs took a 14-7 lead into intermission.
“What was going through my mind was just to make a play,” Brown said. “I feel like (the touchdown) gave us a spark. We all just build off each other.”
North Gwinnett 27, McEachern 21
North 7 7 7 6 ― 27
McEachern 7 0 7 7 ― 21
McEachern: T.J. Rahming 27 pass from Ty Clemons (Dennis Dominguez kick), 11:41
North: C.J. Leggett 2 run (Michael D’Angola kick), 9:07
North: Nate Brown 2 pass from Hayden Sphire (D’Angola kick), 0:11
McEachern: Trey Scott 38 pass from Bailey Hockman (Dominguez kick), 8:13
North: Leggett 53 run (D’Angola kick), 3:17
North: D’Angola 46 FG, 10:49
North: D’Angola 25 FG, 3:15
McEachern: Artise Clark 7 pass from Hockman (Dominguez kick), 2:33
North Gwinnett ---- McEachern
First downs 14 ---- 15
Rushes-yards 41-287 ---- 28-125
Passing yards 69 ---- 198
Att.-Comp.-INT 10-21-3 ---- 16-31-2
Fumbles-lost 4-1 ---- 1-0
Penalties-yards 5-35 ---- 8-71
Rushing — North: Leggett 36-287, Grayson Fowler 3-4, Dante’ Sawyer 1-2, Sphire 1-(-6). McEachern: Clemons 7-49, Taj Griffin 17-39, Rahming 1-37, Ailizee Cubbs 2-1, TEAM 1-(1).
Passing — North: Sphire 9-19-2, 54; Almonzo Brown 1-2-1, 15. McEachern: Hockman 12-14-1, 161; Clemons 4-7-1, 37.
Receiving — North: Caleb Scott 4-49, A. Brown 2-11, N. Brown 2-3, Daniel Imatorbhebhe 1-4, Leggett 1-2. McEachern: Rahming 7-50, Scott 4-70, Clark 3-39, Malik Williiams 2-39.