NORCROSS — In a football game like the one Norcross and South Gwinnett engaged in Friday night in which points are at a premium, the outcome is often determined by a handful of plays.
There were four plays in particular late in the fourth quarter that may have opened the door for the hosts in their 7-0 victory at Blue Devil Stadium.
The most obvious is the numerous nifty moves Norcross wide receiver Nakai Poole made to turn a quick pass from Javan Brown into the game’s only score on a 32-yard touchdown with 7:29 remaining.
But there were three others — Jonathan Mathis’ second effort dive to convert a first down on fourth and inches at the South 39-yard line with less than three and a half minutes to play and two more runs by Tad Logan Jr. to pick up another first down — that helped Norcross (2-2) seal the deal on a night in which the offense managed just 214 yards.
“We had to take a page out of George’s book and play great defense and just manage the game at the end,” said Norcross coach Keith Maloof, referring to his Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame father, former St. Pius X coach George Maloof, following the 201st win of his own career. “I think the offense grew up a little bit down there at the end, and we took it in.”
Indeed, while Norcross’ offense was having trouble dealing with a determined South (2-2) defense, the Blue Devils’ own defensive unit was making life miserable for its opponent most of the night by holding the Comets to just 139 yards of total offense.
And both teams had trouble getting out their own way at times, with the two teams combining for 20 penalties worth 151 yards and each turning the ball over once.
It was South’s miscue, a fumble that Norcross’ Quinton Bance wrestled out of the pile, that set the Blue Devils up at the South 40 with 8:47 remaining in a scoreless game.
After a 14-yard keeper out of the wildcat by A.J. Watkins brought the ball to the 26, it looked like the Norcross offense might stall again following a 1-yard loss on a running play, an incomplete pass and a 5-yard false start penalty that backed the Blue Devils to the 32.
However, Brown looked to his left and found Poole open just short of the first down marker along the near sideline.
With a pair of Comet defenders in front of him, the junior receiver made a quick step to his left, just staying in bounds, and cut back to elude the first defensive back.
Poole then juked his way around the other defender and make a move to elude two more would-be tacklers before finding daylight to go 32 yards into the end zone for a score.
It was his fourth catch of the game for 97 yards, and put Norcross in front 7-0 with 7:29 left to play.
“You can’t (call it) anything but passion on that play,” Maloof said of Poole’s heroics. “Nothing but passion. He took the team on his shoulders on that one play and said, ‘We’re going to win this football game.’”
But even after the defense forced a quick three-and-out and a punt to take over at midfield with 5:34 remaining, there was still plenty of work to do, especially after Norcross called timeout with 3:21 left facing fourth and inches just outside the South 40.
On his first carry of the game while playing most of the way on defense, Mathis handled the first chore despite being hit behind the line of scrimmage, fighting through the hit and lunging to reach the ball over the 40 to the 39 to pick up the first down.
Logan then followed with a 5-yard gain on his first carry of the game, and then powered the pile forward nine more yards for another first down.
“Jonathan plays strong safety and he’s a bigger body, and he loves playing offense,” Maloof said. “That was a time we needed him the most, and he got it for us. Those (three plays) were want-to plays, and that those last two (runs by Logan) were big boy plays. We don’t need to be turning the ball back over to them, and we didn’t want to punt in that situation.”
And with the Comets having already exhausted their timeouts, the Blue Devils were able to run out the clock to claim the hard-earned win.
It ended a night that brought quite a bit of frustration for South coach Bryan Lamar and the Comets, but also some good signs for the future as Region 4-AAAAAAA play approaches.
“Both teams are going to look back at (missed) opportunities,” said Lamar, who played for Maloof as a high school player while both were at Tucker in the 1990s. “We had several opportunities, and the kids continued to play hard. It’s just little things and details. We talk to our guys all the time about the little things. We had to burn timeouts that we could’ve used at the end of the game. There’s a lot of things that we’ve got to do a better job of preparing them. We’ve just got to get back to work. I love the way the kids played, but we’ve got to do a better job on these little details.”
Each team was able move the ball into the opponent’s territory during its opening possession of the game.
South took the opening kickoff and and quickly moved 42 yards to the Norcross 34 in just four plays, but a holding penalty cut off that momentum, and three plays later, Jeremiah Willis sacked Comets quarterback Nathaniel Miller to force a punt.
Despite being backed up to its own 11 after a mishandle on the punt, Norcross was able to put together a 12-play, 88-yard drive that brought the ball to the South 1-yard line.
But on third and goal, Blue Devils quarterback Brown called his own number and dove for the end zone, only to have the ball knocked away before he got there, with Jalavis Wilson scooping up the ball and returning it 6 yards to give the Comets possession at their own 7.
From there, the two offenses combined for more punts (six) than first downs (three), keeping the game scoreless heading into halftime.
NORCROSS 7, SOUTH GWINNETT 0
South 0 0 0 0 – 0
Norcross 0 0 0 7 – 7
Norcross: Nakai Poole 32 pass from Javan Brown (Drew Duva kick), 7:29
First Downs 8 14
Rushes-Yards 30-124 36-91
Passing Yards 15 124
Comp.-Att.-INT 2-10-0 10-17-0
Fumbles-Lost 3-1 3-1
Penalties-Yards 9-70 11-81
Rushing: South – Glenn Rouse 10-36, Mekhi Phillips 7-25, Tehmel Davis 2-24, Nathaniel Miller 6-16, Jayshawn Appling 3-14, Price Aristilde 1-5, Sean Jones 1-4. Norcross – Latavius Johnson 8-33, Christian Williams 12-35, A.J. Watkins 4-19, Tad Logan Jr. 2-14, Ezekiel Johnson 1-9, Jonathan Mathis 1-2, Brown 5-(-8), TEAM 3-(-13).
Passing: South – Miller 2-10-0, 15. Norcross – Brown 10-17-0, 124.
Receiving: South – Elijah McDowell 1-8, Davis 1-7. Norcross – Lawson Luckie 5-13, Nakai Poole 4-97, Williams 1-14.