SUWANEE - North Gwinnett overcame a 14-7 halftime deficit - outscoring Mill Creek 24-0 in the second half - to take a 31-14 homecoming victory Friday night at Tom Robinson Memorial Stadium.
It was the Region 7-AAAAA opener for both teams as North improved to 3-0 overall while Mill Creek dropped to 0-3.
The final margin, however, was not indicative of the competitive nature of the game and, for at least the first half, it was difficult to tell which team was undefeated and which was searching for its first win of the season.
The game started ominously for Mill Creek as North Gwinnett's Ryan McDaniel returned the opening kickoff 72 yards to the Mill Creek 24-yard line. But the Hawks' defense allowed just one yard in three plays and an errant 40-yard field goal attempt from Chad Gross kept the game scoreless.
On its first possession, Mill Creek drove 43 yards in 10 plays, but a fumble by quarterback Zach Landis was scooped up and returned 31 yards by Jasper Williams - giving the North the ball at the Hawks' 28-yard line.
On the very next play, North ran a flea flicker that ended up back in the hands of quarterback Michael Tamburo - who heaved the ball to the end zone where both McDaniel and Mill Creek's Bart Kennelly went up the for ball. Kennelly appeared to have possession for the touchback, but McDaniel wrestled the ball away and the officials signaled touchdown North Gwinnett. Gross' point after gave the Bulldogs a controversial 7-0 lead with 4:30 remaining in the first quarter.
"I had a hand on (the ball) all the way," said McDaniel. "I knew I had to be aggressive and I just came away with it."
The county's leading receiver entering the game, McDaniel finished the night with nine catches for 135 yards and also had a 35-yard punt return for a touchdown to go along with his 72-yard kickoff return.
On the ensuing possession, a 42-yard run by Lenny Brooks gave Mill Creek a first-and-goal at the 5. Brooks finished what he started on the next play with a 5-yard TD scamper - giving Mill Creek its first points of the 2006 season and knotting the score at 7 with 1:50 remaining in the quarter.
The momentum continued to swing Mill Creek's direction when the Hawks stuffed North on a fourth-and 3 just beyond midfield early in the second quarter.
Taking the ball over on downs, Mill Creek proceeded to march 61 yards in 10 plays, capped on an incredible individual play by Landis. The sophomore quarterback broke two tackles while scrambling in the pocket and found a wide open Dylan Burke for a 25-yard scoring strike. The Hawks had their first lead of the 2006 season at 14-7 with 4:25 remaining in the half - a lead they took into the intermission.
But after playing so well in the first half, things fell apart quickly for Mill Creek in the second half. North forced a fumble on a reception across the middle on just the second play from scrimmage and the Bulldogs returned the miscue to the Hawk's 10-yard line. Three plays and less than two minutes later, Tyler Jarry's 2-yard TD run evened the score at 14.
From there, things just got worse for the visiting Hawks.
After gaining 178 yards of total offense in the first half, Mill Creek could never get untracked in the second half. The Hawks were held to just 25 yards in the second half and the entire third and fourth quarters were played on Mill Creek's side of the field.
A 14-yard TD pass from Tamburo to Brandon Rodd gave North a 21-14 lead late in the third quarter and the Bulldogs added a 30-yard field goal by Gross early in the fourth to extend the margin to 10 at 24-14.
McDaniel capped the scoring with his 35-yard punt return with 6:04 remaining in the game.
It was clearly a game of two halves and North coach Bob Sphire was glad to see his Bulldogs get away with a win.
"Our coaches did a good job of making adjustments at the half, but when it comes down to it, kids have to make plays and our kids made plays in the second half," said Sphire. "You're to going to get a good game every Friday night in Georgia when you are playing AAAAA competition. You've got to give Mill Creek a lot of credit. Their kids came out ready to play. I have a great appreciation for the steps it takes when you are building a program from the ground up."
Tamburo had a stellar night running the North offense. He completed 17 of 20 passes for 173 yards and two TDs. He was also the Bulldogs' leading rusher with 20 yards on eight carries. North finished the night with 265 yards of total offense.
After two years of playing non-region competition, Friday night was Mill Creek's first-ever Region 7-AAAAA game and the Hawks made a good account of themselves.
Landis finished the evening with 126 yards passing and completed 11 of 19 attempts. Burke was his favorite target with four receptions for 60 yards, including the TD hook-up. Brooks led all rushers with 55 yards and a score on 12 carries.