NORCROSS — Two weeks into the 2020 high school football season, it is clear to Greater Atlanta Christian coach Tim Hardy that there are still some execution issues to work out with his young offense.
But when he has a defense that is as stingy and opportunistic as the Spartans', it gives that young offense a little room to learn and grow.
Such was the case in Friday night's game against longtime rival Lovett.
After a big season opener against Denmark that included eight turnovers forced, the GAC defense produced four more takeaways, and the offense came up with just enough key plays to help the Spartans hold off the Lions 10-3 at Spartan Stadium.
“The good news is we're 2-0,” Hardy said. “We made the plays we needed to make to win. There were some moments where it's a hot, nasty, humid night, and I love that we saw some guys dig deep and really fight. I love the toughness of our team. I love the unity of our team, and we'll continue to work to improve the execution.”
There was very little wrong with the execution of the defense, however.
After six interceptions in last week's opener, GAC (2-0) came up with three more Friday, including one by Josh Williamson after Will Hardy batted away Lovett's (0-1) last gasp pass towards the end zone with eight seconds left to seal the win.
That gives the Spartans 12 total turnovers forced in the first two weeks, nine of which have been interceptions.
“It's not a surprise to me,” said GAC defensive coordinator Nolan Hughey. “We've got a lot of kids in our secondary that have been playing together for a long time. They play lacrosse together, they play football together and that matters when it comes to communication.
“We make takeaways a priority. We practice that, so every week, we try to get takeaways into our practices, and we work on taking the ball away from (the opposing offense), and it's worked out for us.”
The first half of Friday's game was reminiscent of GAC's opener last week against Denmark, in which the Spartans dominated offensive yardage, gaining 147 yards to Lovett's 71, but had trouble reflecting that advantage on the scoreboard.
Their opening possession of the game might have been their best, as the Spartans took over after a Lovett punt backed them up to their own 1-yard line.
GAC then marched 69 yards over 17 plays, draining 7:58 off the clock and moving as deep as the Lovett 27 before being stopped for a 3-yard loss on fourth and 1.
The game became a field possession battle, which looked like it might be won by Lovett when Wade Shepherd picked off a Deymon Fleming pass to set the Lions up at the GAC 37 with 2:06 left in the first half.
But on the next snap, the Spartans swarmed Logan Givens after he received a short pass from Preston Lusink and forced the ball loose, with Joseph Rose pouncing on it to give GAC the ball back with 1:55 left.
The Spartans then moved the ball 47 yards in nine plays, only to have the drive stall at the Lovett 16.
However, Branan Rountree, who had missed a 38-yard field goal earlier in the second quarter, booted his next attempt true from 33 yards with 15 seconds left in the half, which sent GAC into intermission with a 3-0 lead.
The Spartans had a quick chance to extend the lead early in the second half when Will Hardy picked off a Christopher Fielden pass and returned it 53 yards down the right sideline to set GAC up at the Lovett 13.
But a mishandled shotgun snap ended up as a fumble that Grant Turner snapped up for the Lions at the 18 to thwart that GAC opportunity with just over seven minutes left in the third quarter.
But the Spartans got another chance when Hudson Higgins batted a Fielden pass into the air, where fellow lineman Isaiah Lane grabbed it for the interception to set the offense back up at the Lovett 12 with 2:25 left in the quarter.
“Honestly, that pick was just pure luck,” Lane said. “I was so close to (taking it in for) the touchdown, but my team came through, so it's all good.”
Indeed, after dodging a bullet when Fleming jumped on an errant option pitch on second down to retain possession at the Lovett 12, Fleming got the ball to Gannon Hearst on the next snap.
And the junior broke several tackles for 12 of the hardest-earned of his 51 yards on the night before stretching out to reach the end zone for a TD that gave Spartans breathing room at 10-0 with 1:30 left in the quarter.
Lovett then started to get its running game going behind Michael Hollingsworth, who ran for 31 of his team-high 57 yards on a 19-play, 63-yard drive that took the ball into the red zone.
But the GAC defense stiffened and the Lions were forced to settle for a 26-yard Lucas Hyman field goal to cut the Spartans' lead to 10-3 with 4:07 left to play.
After GAC was forced to punt, Lovett got as deep as the Spartans 33 following a 15-yard penalty, but the ball remained there on fourth and 10 with 16 seconds to play.
Fielden threw the ball up for grabs into the end zone, but Hardy batted the ball away, right into Williamson's hands for the interception with eight seconds left that sealed the win for GAC.
GAC 10, LOVETT 3
Lovett 0 0 0 3 – 3
GAC 0 3 7 0 – 10
GAC: Branan Rountree 33 FG, 0:15
GAC: Gannon Hearst 12 run (Rountree kick), 1:30
Lovett: Lucas Hyman 26 FG, 4:07
First Downs 8 11
Rushes-yards 30-97 37-115
Passing yards 51 66
Comp.-Att.-INT 10-21-3 9-15-1
Fumbles-lost 4-1 5-0
Penalties-yards 6-50 3-16
Rushing: Lovett – Michael Hollingsworth 14-57, Collin Goldberg 2-29, Christopher Fielden 10-23, TEAM 1-(-1), Preston Lusink 3-(-11). GAC – Tre Henry 13-71, Hearst 16-51, Deymond Fleming 7-(-7), TEAM 1-0.
Passing: Lovett – Lusink 4-7-0, 33; Fielden 6-13-3, 18; Goldberg 0-1-0,0. GAC – Fleming 9-15-1, 66.
Receiving: Lovett – Hollingsworth 5-8, Goldberg 3-27, Logan Givens 2-16. GAC – Will Hardy 3-17, Brooks Miller 3-17, Seiku White 2-16, Josh Williamson 1-16.