Norcross’ Warren McWilliams (34), Myles Autry (5), Lorenzo Carter (8), Kevin Mouhon (48) and Clinton Lynch (2) celebrate with the championship trophy after defeating North Gwinnett 31-14 during the Class AAAAAA State Championship game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Saturday. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
ATLANTA — In a season full of adjustments, Norcross made plenty of them in its Class AAAAAA state championship game against North Gwinnett.
After giving up 14 first-quarter points, the Blue Devils’ defense clamped down and held the Bulldogs scoreless the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, the Norcross offense, which had relied so much on the running game throughout the postseason, took to the air as A.J. Bush threw for 303 yards and two long touchdowns to help the No. 3 state-ranked Blue Devils score 31 unanswered points to seal the title with a 31-14 win late Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
Myles Autry had a huge game with 203 all-purpose yards, including a 92-yard kickoff return for a score and a 69-yard TD reception, while Clinton Lynch had five catches for 135 yards and a score as Norcross (13-2) not only secured their second straight state title, but also avenged a regular-season loss to the fourth-ranked Bulldogs (13-2).
“We just had to find ways to counter what (North was) doing to us,” Norcross coach Keith Maloof said. “When you start the game off, you’ve got to get the feel a little bit — the speed of the game. … It takes you a little bit of time to get adjusted. After our guys got adjusted, they were lights out.”
After watching his Bulldogs battle to win four road contests to make it to Saturday night’s title game, North coach Bob Sphire figured the outcome came down to something more tangible than in-game adjustments.
“I don’t think they made any adjustments. They have some great players and they made some great plays,” Sphire said. “That’s a credit to their players and the talent they have.”
It was North making most of the big plays early in the game, with Sphire’s son Hayden coming up with clutch completions.
A big 15-yard hook-up with Nate Brown gave the Bulldogs field position, while a 13-yard strike to Daniel Imatorbhebhe on third and 11 from midfield kept the drive alive.
Finally, the younger Sphire capped the seven-play, 69-yard drive by firing a strike to Brown slanting in from the right side for a 5-yard TD that gave North a 7-0 lead with 2:50 left in the first quarter.
The Bulldogs then built on that lead by taking advantage of a Norcross miscue.
An early shotgun snap put Bush on the run deep in his own territory before sending a pass along the sideline to what he thought was an open receiver.
But having backed off into coverage, Dante Sawyer made a leaping catch and kept a foot in bounds for the interception to set North up at the Blue Devils’ 21-yard line.
Two plays later, Sphire rolled to his right and threaded the needle to a well-covered Caleb Scott, who made the grab for a 20-yard touchdown that pushed the Bulldogs’ lead to 14-0 with 1:40 left in the opening frame.
However, Autry made sure that two-score lead didn’t last long.
“When we were down 14-0, I think our heads were going down,” Autry said. “I told (the team) the game wasn’t over. I’ve got them.”
Looking increasingly more like himself after suffering knee injury about a year ago, the 5-foot-11, 159-pound senior delivered on his promise, fielding the ensuing kickoff on his own 8-yard line, cutting to his left, picking up a block and sprinting 92 yards down the left sideline for a TD.
The extra point was missed, but the Blue Devils were back in the game, trailing just 14-6 with 1:28 left in the quarter.
“That touchdown turned the game around for us,” Maloof said. “We were scrambling on offense a little bit, and that turned the corner for us and the defense kind of fed off it, and we just got better and better.”
Norcross missed two opportunities to cut further in to the deficit, with Bobby Young picking off Bush in the end zone to thwart one scoring chance, while North stuffed Jonathan Boyd on fourth and less than a yard at the Bulldogs’ 32 a series later.
But finally, Norcross cashed in on field position.
Three plays after starting at the Norcross 48, Bush delivered a strike to a wide-open Lynch down the left sideline for a 34-yard scoring strike with 4:19 left in the half.
Bush then found Lynch again for the two-point conversion, and the two teams went into intermission tied at 14-all.
The Blue Devils seemed to miss another opportunity Boyd was stripped of the ball headed into the end zone, with Bryan Williams recovering for the Bulldogs to keep the game tied early in the third quarter.
But Ridwan Issahaku got that turnover back by picking off Sphire at the North 28 — one of his two interceptions and the team’s four picks on the night — to set up Blake Bingham’s 32-yard field goal that put Norcross up 17-14 with 5:33 left in the period.
And the Blue Devils made sure they would stay in front by stifling the the Bulldogs for just eight first downs in the second half, four of which came on penalties.
“That’s the blue swarm, that’s the blue swarm,” said Norcross linebacker Jaquan Frazier, who finished with a team-high 14 combined tackles and assists with an interception and a sack. ‘We wanted to hold them to nothing, but we gave them a little life at the beginning. We had to buckle down after that.”
And after a Frazier interception late in the third quarter, Bush and the Blue Devils began to hit North with some big plays through the air.
A 65-yard strike from Bush to Lynch gave Norcross a first down at the Bulldogs’ 4-yard line, and Bush dove in from 3 yards out two plays later to increase the lead to 24-14 with 25 seconds left in the quarter.
After forcing a punt on North’s next possession, Bush delivered the knockout blow.
Autry got behind his defender, and Bush hit him in stride for a 69-yard touchdown pass that ballooned the Blue Devils lead to 31-14 with 9:39 to play.
While North was able to move the ball — mostly thanks to the running of C.J. Leggett, who had 106 yards on 29 carries and six catches for 61 yards, and the arm of Sphire, who was 20 of 41 with four interceptions for 186 yards and two scores — Norcross did not let the Bulldogs pull any closer.
And as the clock wound down, the Blue Devils were able to put a rocky 1-2 start that include a 36-17 loss to the Bulldogs on Sept. 13 behind them and celebrate their second straight title.
“The first time (against North) we were not ready, we were immature as a team and I wasn’t as much of a leader as I should’ve been,” said Bush, who finished the game 17 of 23 with two interceptions and the two TDs. “But we got it (this time).”
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Norcross 31, North Gwinnett 14
North 14 0 0 0 ― 14
Norcross 6 8 10 7 ― 31
North: Nate Brown 5 pass from Hayden Sphire (Michael D’Angola kick), 2:50
North: Caleb Scott 20 pass from Sphire (D’Angola kick), 1:40
Norcross: Myles Autry 92 KO return (kick failed), 1:28
Norcross: Clinton Lynch 34 pass from A.J. Bush (Lynch pass from Bush), 4:19
Norcross: Blake Bingham 32 FG, 5:53
Norcross: Bush 3 run (Bingham kick), 0:25
Norcross: Autry 69 pass from Bush (Bingham kick), 9:39
NG --- Norc
First downs 17 --- 12
Rushes-yards 33-96 --- 30-47
Passing yards 186 --- 303
Att.-Comp.-INT 20-41-4 --- 17-23-2
Fumbles-lost 1-0 --- 1-1
Penalties-yards 7-44 --- 14-133
Rushing — North: C.J. Leggett 29-106, Almonzo Brown 1-2, TEAM 1-(-4), Sphire 2-(-8). Norcross: Jonathan Boyd 14-30, Bush 7-12, KaDarius Garrett 2-3, Jacob Gassert 1-3, Autry 2-1, James Keeling 1-(-1), TEAM 2-(-2).
Passing — North: Sphire 20-41-4, 186. Norcross: Bush 17-23-2, 303.
Receiving — North: Leggett 6-61, Scott 5-51, N. Brown 4-47, A. Brown 4-14, Imatorbhebhe 1-13. Norcross: Lynch 5-135, Autry 5-95, Christopher Herndon 5-45, Darian Dennis 2-28.
RAW VIDEO: Norcross head coach Keith Maloof
Norcross head coach Keith Maloof addresses his team (and does a little dance) following their 31-14 win over North Gwinnett in the Class AAAAAA state championship on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.