By Michael Alpert
For the AJC
Grayson entered Friday’s second-round game of the Class AAAAAA playoffs with a more renowned defense than visiting North Gwinnett.
But it was North’s that stood firmer and turned three fumble recoveries and an interception into a 28-10 victory and a quarterfinal date next week at Lovejoy.
“We’re not as good on defensively (as we are offensively), but we’ve been scrappy,” North coach Bob Sphire said. “You’ve got to make plays when you have a chance, especially in a game like this at this point in the season.”
Dante Sawyer’s fumble recovery and interception led North’s defense, which forced Grayson to put the ball on the ground nine times and lose three, as well as throw the interception. Preston Green and Bobby Young also chipped in recoveries.
North scored on its first five possessions, the first and third of which began with takeaways. Methodically, with four field goals, then two touchdowns and a safety, the No. 4 Bulldogs (11-1) avenged their second-round loss to the No. 3 Rams (10-2) in the same round two years ago, in the teams’ only meeting previously.
After Sawyer halted Grayson’s game-opening drive with his recovery at North’s 19-yard line, North marched to Grayson’s 19 where Michael D’Angola’s 36-yard field goal put the Bulldogs ahead 3-0. D’Angola’s 31-yarder put North up 6-0 with 9:35 left in the first, and after Preston Green’s fumble recovery, D’Angola’s 37-yarder upped the Bulldogs’ advantage to 9-0.
The defending state champion Rams came as close as they would, within 9-3, on Alex Louthan’s 36 yard field goal with six seconds left in the first half. But the Bulldogs answered with D’Angola’s 29-yard field goal for a 12-3 lead with 9:35 remaining in the third quarter, then pulled away.
Receiver Nate Brown’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Caleb Scott widened North’s advantage to 19-3 with 7:58 left in the third quarter, and when a Grayson snap over its punter’s head rolled out the back of the end zone, the safety put North ahead 21-3. The Bulldogs held their biggest lead, 28-3, after gaining possession on Sawyer’s interception and Brown’s 7-yard touchdown reception from Michael Haynes with less than four minutes left.
Grayson pulled within the the final margin on a 41-yard pass.
Sphire said his players aren’t the type to be awed by playing at places like Grayson, where the Rams had won 14 straight.
“We’ve played in tough settings before,” Sphire said of games including a preseason one at Stephenson and North’s 16-14 season-opening win at the Georgia Dome. “I don’t think it’s a shock to our system to play great teams in great environments.”
NORTH GWINNETT 28, GRAYSON 10
North Gwinnett: 6 3 12 7 – 28
Grayson: 0 3 0 7 – 10
NG — Michael D’Angola 36 FG
NG — D’Angola 32 FG
NG — D’Angola 37 FG
G — Alex Louthan 36 FG
NG — D’Angola 29 FG
NG — Caleb Scott 15 pass from Nate Brown (D’Angola kick)
NG — Safety (punt snap rolls out of back of end zone)
NG — Brown 7 pass from Michael Haynes (D’Angola kick)
G — Cory Schaeffer 41 pass from David McTier (Louthan kick)