SUWANEE - Decisions. Decisions.
With half of his staff telling him to go for it and the other half telling him to take the points, North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire had to make the biggest "call" of the night in his team's 21-17 win over Chattahoochee in the first round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs.
The fifth-ranked Bulldogs had just kicked the game-tying field goal with 5:32 remaining in the game, but Chattahoochee was called for roughing North Gwinnett kicker Chad Gross on his follow-through.
North Gwinnett could take the points, which would have made it 17 all, or take the first down and take its chances from the Cougars' 7-yard line.
The old coaching adage is to never take points off the board, but, "I've never been much of a by-the-card kinda coach," explained Sphire.
After accepting the penalty and sending his offense back on the field, the Bulldogs made their coach look brilliant three plays later. Quarterback Michael Tamburo dove across from the 1-yard line and North Gwinnett went on to post the 21-17 victory over Chattahoochee in the opening round of the AAAAA state playoffs Friday night at Tom Robinson Memorial Stadium.
North Gwinnett (10-1), which was playing its first home playoff game in 10 years, advances to play at Etowah (8-3) next Friday. The top-seeded Eagles from Region 5-AAAAA defeated Parkview, 26-21.
"I was really worried about (tonight), I'm not going to lie," said Sphire. "We had our flattest practices of the season on Monday and Tuesday. We lost a tough game last week (against Norcross) and our kids hurt after that loss. But I want them to hurt, because we expect to win."
Outside of an opening 11-play, 71-yard drive that produced a touchdown run of 10 yards from Tristan Rodney-Hazelton, Chattahoochee did next to nothing offensively against the North Gwinnett defense. Minus that drive, the Cougars managed just 49 yards of offense the rest of the night.
But the North Gwinnett offense was having difficulties of its own getting untracked. The Bulldogs' vaunted aerial attack did not complete a single pass until four minutes into the second quarter and two plays later, a Tamburo pass went through Ryan McDaniel and into the hands of Rodney-Hazelton, who returned the interception 83 yards for his second score of the game.
North did manage to put together a quick scoring drive late in the quarter as Tamburo hit Brandon Rodd with a 12-yard scoring strike to pull within a touchdown at 14-7 with 2:29 remaining in the half.
And if not for some clock mismanagement, the Bulldogs might have scored again. Tamburo was sacked on third down at the Cougars' 9-yard line, and, out of timeouts, the clock ran out before the Bulldogs' could get their field goal team on the field.
Another turnover on a fumble by McDaniel on the second half kickoff provided Chattahoochee its next scoring opportunity. The Cougars went 19 yards on four plays before settling for a Jordan Utley 29-yard field goal to take the 17-7 lead.
Tamburo, who finished with 112 yards rushing on 18 carries, scored his second rushing TD of the night, this one from 26 yards out, to cut the lead to 17-14 heading into the final quarter. The sophomore also passed for 180 yards and a TD, completing 14 of his 25 attempts with the one interception.
"He put us on his back," said Sphire of his sophomore quarterback. "That was one great game by Michael. He really only made one mistake all night - taking that sack at the end of the first half. But that was just a sophomore mistake. I promise you he won't make the same mistake twice."
After the Bulldogs took the 21-17 lead, Chattahoochee had two more possessions to try and answer. But the Cougars' gained just two yards total in seven plays as quarterback Brendan Cross threw three incomplete passes and was sacked twice, including on his team's last snap of the game. The Cougars finished the night with just 120 yards of total offense.
Meanwhile, North Gwinnett gained 360 yards in total offense, led by Tamburo's 292 yards of output. Running back Evan Gilles had 53 yards on 13 carries and Tyler Jarry finished with four catches for 56 yards.
Despite being held to just three catches for 29 yards, Ryan McDaniel broke the Gwinnett County single-season record for receptions as his third reception of the evening gave him 64 for the year.
NORTH GWINNETT 21, CHATTAHOOCHEE 17
Chattahoochee 7 7 3 0 - 17
North Gwinnett 0 7 7 7 - 21
Chattahoochee: Tristan Rodney-Hazelton 10 run (Jordan Utley kick) 6:27
Chattahoochee: Rodney-Hazelton 83 interception return (Utley kick) 7:04
North Gwinnett: Brandon Rodd 12 pass from Michael Tamburo (Chad Gross kick) 2:29
Chattahoochee: Utley 29 FG, 9:50
North Gwinnett: Tamburo 26 run (Gross kick) 3:48
North Gwinnett: Tamburo 1 run (Gross kick) 4:25