Photo by Christine Troyke
SUWANEE -- The drought is over.
After going 0-for-3 in the last three Region 7-AAAAA championship games, a region title will finally rest at North Gwinnett High School.
C.J. Uzomah threw a go-ahead touchdown pass and Will Compton returned an interception for a touchdown to seal a 21-7 over No. 8 Peachtree Ridge on Friday in front of a crowd of more than 8,500 fans.
The win gives No. 2 North Gwinnett its first region title in the 52-year history of the school and the first 10-0 regular season.
"It's unbelievable," Uzomah said. "It has taken us 52 years. Honestly, we did this for the seniors. The seniors wanted this. I think it was great to pull out a win over a great team."
North (10-0, 8-0 region) will enter the first round of the Class AAAAA playoffs next week as the No. 1 seed and will host Centennial. Peachtree Ridge, which won last year's region championship and reached the state championship game, will be the No. 2 seed and host Kell.
After being intercepted twice in the second half, Uzomah threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Cordero Dixon to put the Bulldogs up 14-7. The Bulldogs defense forced a Lions punt and on Peachtree Ridge's last possession in the final minute, Compton intercepted a pass and returned it 45 yards to secure the region championship.
"I wasn't here for the first 48 years," North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said. "But it was nice to be in the last game of the season and have a chance, and get beat the previous three seasons by some outstanding football teams, and once again have another classic game and come out on top."
North Gwinnett's Elder Palacios blocked the Lions' 43-yard field goal attempt on the game's opening possession.
The Bulldogs made another big stand by stopping the Lions on fourth down at the two-yard line.
"The defense kept rising to the occasion," Sphire said.
North Gwinnett didn't manage a first down until the end of the first quarter and it was a big play of defense that got the scoring started.
Brandon McGowen, who had six tackles, recovered a Chris Sawdey fumble to set up North's first score. Uzomah (10 of 17, 126 yards) connected with Justin Dickens for a 13-yard pass on third down and Joe Jones finished off the 36-yard drive with an eight-yard touchdown to go up 7-0. Jones also rushed for 93 yards.
"That was huge and I think that's the one thing our team has done well this year is manage the game with a lead," Sphire said.
"I'd like us to have a little more of a killer instinct and get a little more breathing room, but they are an outstanding football team."
Peachtree Ridge had seven first-half possessions. The first resulted in a blocked field goal, there were two lost fumbles, including one on the 0-for-3 fourth down attempts, a punt and the end of the half.
Not exactly the best way to stay in a tight ball game.
"We made some mistakes," Peachtree Ridge head coach Bill Ballard said. "I felt like we played pretty good defensively in the first half. We have to finish drives and we have to score."
Peachtree Ridge linebacker Tanner Botts (10 tackles) forced a Raahmil Brantley fumble and Sterling Jones recovered to start the second half. Nick Lombardo connected with Sawdey for a 30-yard pass and then Lombardo hit Sawdey for a four-yard touchdown to tie the game 7-7 in the third quarter. Sawdey also rushed for 109 yards.
Uzomah was picked off by Brian Williams (seven tackles) at midfield, but the Lions had to settle for a 46-yard field goal by Justin Watts that was no good.
Uzomah was intercepted again on North's next series by Dubem Nwadiogbu as the quarterback was being pressured. The Bulldogs defense came up with another big stop and North responded with a nine-play, 90-yard scoring drive.
Peachtree Ridge accepted a holding penalty on third down, putting the Bulldogs in third and long. Uzomah took advantage with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Dixon with 6:39 left in the game to take a 14-7 lead.
"It's one of those things we went with the decision and we have to stick with it," Ballard said. "No matter what we went with we had our opportunities to score."
Peachtree Ridge got the ball back with 40 seconds left, but Lombardo was picked off by Compton and returned it for a touchdown to seal the win.
"We've known they've been such a good team this whole time," North offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said. "We knew it would be a battle."
David Park led the North Gwinnett defense with 10 tackles, while Compton had eight, Trey Sims recorded seven stops and McGowen made six tackles.