SUWANEE - The first image that usually comes to mind when the North Gwinnett football team is mentioned these days is that of a high-powered spread offense that rolls up yardage and points with ease.
That's a natural impression given the prolific production of an offense that has rolled up over 4,800 yards - nearly equally distributed on the ground and through the air - and 400 points this season.
What often gets lost in the shuffle is the contributions of the North defense - contributions that are equally responsible for the No. 5 state-ranked Bulldogs (13-1) being in position to play for the program's first state championship when they travel to Martin Stadium in Valdosta on Saturday to take on No. 4 Lowndes (13-1) at 7:30 p.m.
"I think I've said it a million times, but every big game we've won, the defense has played well," second-year North coach Bob Sphire said. "Since we've won 24 of 27 games since I've been here, I'd say we're playing some pretty good defense. ... I don't know if it sells as many tickets (as the offense), but it can win you as many championships."
The Bulldogs' defense isn't totally made up of no-names.
Playmakers like defensive end Eric Eberhardt (team-best 97 tackles, Gwinnett County-best 13 sacks) and cornerback Marquese Quiles (50 tackles, county-best 7 INTs) are as well known around prep football circles as offensive spark plugs like quarterback Michael Tamburo and running back Tyler Jarry.
But as a unit, the North defense maintains a somewhat lower profile than its offensive counterpart, though the individual members don't seem to mind flying under the radar.
"It's no big deal," said North senior defensive end Robert Pritchard, who has committed to Central Florida. "We know the offense is going to get headlines because they're a high-scoring offense, but that's OK. We just have to play football."
Individuals like Pritchard (48 tackles, 6 sacks) and fellow seniors Eloka Anyaorah (81 tackles, 91/2 sacks) and Tom Martinez (81 tackles, 31/2 sacks) have done good job of "just playing football" - good enough to make the North defense as formidable a unit as there is in the county, allowing an average of just 11.5 points per game.
What makes the defense's achievements even more impressive is the complexity of the system implemented by Sphire and defensive coordinator Mo Dixon upon their arrival at North last season - and how quickly the Bulldogs have adjusted to it.
The 3-3-5 scheme North uses is dramatically different from the 4-3 and 4-4 sets the team ran the two seasons prior to last year.
Sphire's aggressive system was born out of his experiences coaching at Lexington (Ky.) Catholic High School and the Lexington Horsemen of the National Indoor Football League.
"We're a very multiple (formation) defense," Sphire said. "It's really the same philosophy as our offense, and the same attitude - attack, attack, attack. It's a complement to our offense as far as the whole tempo of the game is concerned."
It isn't the easiest defense to learn, however, especially to players like Anyaorah and Pritchard, who were called on to do things dramatically different from what they were used to under the old systems.
"I used to play strong safety," said Anyaorah, a 6-foot, 195-pound linebacker. "There's just more to do (in the current system).
"The 3-3-5 is all about you and your teammates doing the right things and being in the right place at the right time to make plays. At the start of spring practice (just after Sphire's arrival), we did a lot of film watching and we got familiar with it. It really wasn't until the Brookwood game (in 2006) that I knew I had it down pat."
As the defense's familiarity with the 3-3-5 has grown this year, so has its efficiency and the individual members' enjoyment of it - two traits that may come in handy in what figures to be a physical Saturday night at Lowndes.
"It's a lot of fun," said Martinez, a 5-10, 210-pound linebacker. "We blitz a lot, and there's a lot of flying around to the ball. ... As a defense, we know we'll have to play physical and bring a lot of pressure (against Lowndes)."