SUWANEE - North Gwinnett stayed with the No. 1 team in the nation for two quarters Friday, but couldn't hold the lead in the second half.
Byrnes (S.C.), the top team in the country according to USA Today, scored 27 points in the second half to beat the Bulldogs 36-21.
The game was played in front of 8,207 fans at the Progressive Football Challenge hosted by North Gwinnett.
"I think they're the most balanced football team we've played and they've probably got as good a collection of athletes that anybody can put on the field that we've played.," North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said. "They're very difficult defend. They're an outstanding football team and there as good as anybody in the country I'm sure."
North Gwinnett, which reached last year's Class AAAAA state title game, lost 10 starters on defense. The unit was expected to be a concern against a Byrnes team that averaged 40 points a game last season.
The Bulldogs held the Rebels, which have won five of the last six South Carolina state titles, to just nine points in the first half. The Rebels' first four possessions of the game resulted in punts.
"I knew it was going to be tough playing these guys," Byrnes head coach Chris Miller said. "I take my hat off to his defense. If he lost 10 guys and they can play that good, that's something else."
North's Michael Tamburo scored on a one-yard run after a botched punt return by Byrnes in the first quarter.
Marcus Lattimore's seven-yard TD put Byrnes ahead 9-7 with 1:23 left in the first half. Lattimore was the game's leading rusher with 166 yards and two TDs.
On the ensuing kickoff, Cordero Dixon took the return 83 yards for the TD and North led 14-9 at halftime.
"We just weren't mentally focused in the first half and Coach Miller got on to us and told us they were a good team, but we were just playing around acting like they weren't," Lattimore said. "So we just came out in the second half mentally focused."
Justin Bright intercepted a Tamburo pass and took it 15 yards for the score to put Byrnes ahead 15-14 after the two-point conversion failed in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs' offense sputtered in the third quarter with only one first down in four possessions.
By then North's defense, which had been able to keep the game close, was nearly out of gas.
Lattimore added a 48-yard TD run and Ricco Sanders had a 16-yard score in the third quarter to give the Rebels 29-14 advantage. Sanders also scored on a 37-yard pass from Chas Dodd, who was 16 of 34 for 248 yards.
North was finally able to get in the end zone again with Tyler Jarry's a one-yard score midway through the fourth, but the Bulldogs never threatened again.
"They're a great team, a great program," Jarry said of Byrnes. "I hope they do well this season."