The Norcross Blue Devils (13-2) and the North Gwinnett Bulldogs (13-2) squared off on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome in the final game of the GHSA 2013 football season to decide the champion of Class-AAAAAA, the state’s largest classification, with the Blue Devils trying to win their second consecutive title. After 48 minutes of football, Norcross proved they are the best team in the state with an impressive 17 point victory over Region-7 rival North, 31-14.
After a slow start that saw the Bulldogs jump out to a 14-0 lead before the first quarter had ended, thanks in part to critical mistakes deep in the Norcross end of the field, on a pair of touchdown passes by Hayden Sphire, the Blue Devils scored 31 unanswered points and had taken control of the game by the time the final quarter began.
Norcross started on offense and after the teams exchanged punts, North began their second possession at their own 39. Sphire connected with running back CJ Leggett for a 32-yard catch-and-run that moved the ball to the Norcross six after they had started on their own 30 yard line, and then hit Nate Brown in the end zone for the first score of the game to put North up 7-0 with 2:50 to go in the first stanza.
Norcross took the ensuing kick returned it to the 16, where they started their third possession of the night. The Blue Devils then made their first critical mistake of the night when the snap caught quarterback AJ Bush unprepared and went into the end zone. Bush scrambled and recovered the ball, but then forced a pass down the sideline that was intercepted by defensive end Dante Sawyer and brought back to the Norcross 21.
The unforced error resulted in the Bulldogs scoring on a 20-yard Sphire to Caleb Scott TD pass just 1:10 after they had scored their first TD of the game. After the PAT, North was up 14-0 and had the early momentum.
With Norcross in need of a spark, Myles Autry took the kickoff and weaved his way through defenders before breaking to the outside and outrunning the North defenders to the end zone for a 92-yard touchdown. Despite the PAT being missed, the momentum was beginning to change and Norcross had pulled to within eight, 14-6, with 1:28 left in the quarter.
Both Norcross and North had success moving the ball in the first half, but both teams also had turnovers deep in their opponent’s territory that brought drives to an end.
Bush was picked off for the second time in the game, this time by Bobby Young, after moving the ball to the North eight. The Bulldogs gave the ball right back to the Devils when Sphire was picked off by Jordan Noils.
Norcross moved the ball to the North 31 yard line before facing a 4th and short. Coach Keith Maloof decided to go for it rather than going for the three, and the North D stepped up and came up with a stop to give the ball back to their offense. The Bulldogs couldn’t move the ball and were forced to punt, giving the Blue Devils the ball at their own 48.
With 4:19 left before the intermission, Clinton Lynch delivered the second big play of the night for Norcross when he took advantage of a blown coverage that resulted in him running free down the left sideline where Bush hit him with a perfect pass for a 32-yard score that cut the Blue Devils deficit to two, 14-12. Norcross went for two points to tie the score, and were successful when Lynch pulled in a pass from Bush in the middle of the end zone to tie the game at 14-all.
The first half expired and the teams headed for the locker room with the score tied, but Norcross had the emotional advantage after having two big plays that showed they could score from anywhere on the field, while North was misfiring.
As he was leaving the field, Coach Maloof said that “Bush made some mistakes, but rebounded and we have recovered from a slow start. Now, we have to keep plugging,” and that they did as the second half was all Norcross.
North took the kick to open the second half and failed to move the ball. Norcross started their first drive of the half at their 48 and quickly moved the ball to the Bulldog five before Josh Boyd fumbled the ball on his way into the end zone, seemingly keeping North in the game. However, Sphire was intercepted for the third time in the game, this time by Ridman Issahaku-who they had been going after the entire game, and the Devils then took their first lead of the game when Blake Bingham was good on a 32-yard field goal try with 5:53 left in the quarter.
The third quarter would see North turn the ball over three times, leading to 10 points and a 24-14 lead for Norcross as the final 12 minutes of play began.
The score that would extend the Norcross lead to 10 was setup by a Bush-to-Lynch 64 yard pass after Lynch again beat the North defenders down the sideline. Bush carried the rock in from the four with just 25 ticks of the clock left before the final quarter.
The North Gwinnett faithful kept hope, believing that the team they have called “The Cardiac Kids” all season because of their penchant for late game heroics would mount a comeback. With 9:39 left in the contest, that belief was dashed when Bush and Autry teamed up for another big play.
Bush hit Autry for a 69-yard pass and catch that gave the Blue Devils the final victory margin of 17 points and secured the 31-14 victory that put Norcross in the record books as back-to-back champions.
Coach Bob Sphire said after the game that “They (Norcross) have some great players and they made some great plays. That’s a credit to their players and the talent they have.”
Coach Maloof was proud of his team and said that the victory was a team effort. “Defense, offense and special teams, we did all of it.”
While Examiner had projected North would come out on top in this one, it was pointed out that “If Norcross can shut down the North ground attack and force them to the air the chance for turnovers increases, as well as denying the Bulldogs control of the clock.”
Despite Leggett going over 100 yards rushing again, Norcross prevented North from pulling off big plays and that led to the Bulldogs gong to the air-which resulted in four INTs.
The performance by Norcross left no doubt as to the best team in the state.
Congratulations to the Blue Devils on their second consecutive state 6-A title.
Buford also won their game, making it 10 state titles for the Wolves and making Gwinnett home to two state champions-again.
Norcross: Josh Boyd had 30 yards on 14 carries to lead a rushing attack that only accounted for 46 yards.
North: CJ Leggett ran hard again, breaking the century mark with 106 yards on 29 carries.
Norcross: AJ Bush was 17-for-23 for 303 yards, two long TDs and two interceptions.
North: Hayden Sphire had a rough night against the Devil D. He was 20-for-41 for 186 yards and two touchdowns, but was picked off four times.
Norcross: Clinton Lynch (5 R, 135 yards, TD), Myles Autry (5 R, 95 yards, TD) and Chris Herndon (5 R, 45 yards) all had five receptions.
North: Leggett led North in both catches and yards (6 R, 61 yards, TD) in addition to his rushing numbers.
- Autry had 206 all-purpose yards and two TDs for Norcross in the win. The senior led the team both on the field and emotionally after looking like himself after recovering from a knee injury that hampered most of his season. The young man finished the season with two strong efforts, and should have answered recruiter’s questions about his recovery.
After going 1-1 in finals projections, Examiner finishes the season with an 87-22 season mark in game projections, including 24-6 in the playoffs.
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