Norcross defense develops into dominating unit on state-title run

ATLANTA — Three months and one day — the time span between meetings with rival North Gwinnett — made a huge difference for the Norcross defense.

The Blue Devils were overwhelmed by the North passing attack back on Sept. 13, giving up four second-half touchdowns through the air in a 36-17 loss. When they faced that same offense in Saturday’s Class AAAAAA state championship game, they had grown up and developed into one of Georgia’s most dominating defenses. After giving up a few scores early, Norcross completely shut down North the rest of the way in a 31-14 victory for its second straight state title.

“You’ve got to give it to the defensive coaches, (defensive coordinator) Pat (Standard), all of them,” Norcross head coach Keith Maloof said. “They got the kids ready and they’ve done it all year. When you only give up 39 points in five playoff games, that’s pretty darn good. And we shut down a high-powered offense tonight.”

That was the theme throughout the playoffs for Norcross (13-2).

Only one opponent scored more than 14 points in the 12 games since the first loss to North. Over that 12-game span, the defense gave up an average of 8.2 points.

That unit was even better in the postseason, holding its first four opponents to single digits. The most impressive was a quarterfinal victory over Colquitt County, limiting the Packers to just three field goals in a 14-9 win.

The late-season defense doesn’t even resemble the one that struggled early, but the initial loss to North proved to be the Blue Devils’ turning point.

“The first time (vs. North), we got shell-shocked,” Standard said. “We weren’t ready. We weren’t ready at all. I know the whole world thought we were, but we weren’t ready. … The Norcross defense, we’ve always been aggressive somehow, some way. We had to play more aggressive.”

Standard praised senior Kevin Mouhon’s leadership, part of a deep linebacker group that also included Warren McWilliams and Jaquan Frazier. Mouhon had 19 tackles, Frazier had 17 and McWilliams had 12 stops in the title game. Six of their tackles were for losses.

“I’m part of the best trio of linebackers I could ever ask for,” said Frazier, who also had an interception and a sack in the finals. “I wouldn’t trade my guys for anybody in the nation. Those guys stuck with me. We played hard and we got that W.”

The defensive line, led by highly touted defensive end Lorenzo Carter, also stepped up big. Carter and fellow end J.B. Kouassi had seven tackles each vs. North, and Kouassi had four stops behind the line. Carter batted three pass attempts down at the line.

But the most improved group from start to finish was the secondary, which suffered heavy graduation losses off last season’s state championship game.

That unit was burned by North and Nate Brown, who caught four touchdown passes in the team’s first matchup, back in September. The Bulldogs made some plays early in the passing game Saturday, but Norcross’ secondary answered.

Ridwan Issahaku made a pair of interceptions and Jordan Noil added a big interception, too. Issahaku broke up four passes and Malcolm Galloway broke up three.

“It feels good to win it for the community, for everybody who supported Norcross football,” Issahaku said. “It was good to do it for Coach Maloof and all the coaches. They deserve it. We’re a bunch of self-motivated guys with great coaching. Our coaches put us in great positions to make plays no matter what.”