Photo: Brian Kamer . North Gwinnett's Raahmil Brantley (30) breaks a tackle from Centennial's Evan Hamrick (23) during Friday night's playoff game at North Gwinnett.
SUWANEE -- North Gwinnett's Cordero Dixon tried all season to return a kickoff for a touchdown. He finally got his first in the playoffs.
Dixon returned the game's opening kick for a touchdown to set the tone for the Bulldogs' 51-21 victory over Centennial in the first round of the Class AAAAA playoffs.
"We've been waiting for a kickoff return," Dixon said. "Many games we return it to about the 50 and I get tripped up. It set the tone for us."
No. 2 North, which has reached at least the quarterfinals of the state playoffs the last three years, will host Woodstock next week in the second round.
Dixon had 180 all-purpose yards in the game, which included a 17-yard touchdown run and four receptions for 25 yards. The 52 points is the most ever in the playoffs for the Bulldogs, who won their first region title in the school's 52-year history last week.
"We just came to play today," Dixon said.
Dixon's kickoff return for a touchdown was one of two big special teams plays. The Bulldogs' Alex Forrester also scored on a blocked punt.
"When you get special teams points like that, it's almost like a 14-point swing," North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said.
North Gwinnett (11-0) scored the first three times it touched the ball.
After Dixon's TD return, the Bulldogs used an 11-play, 75-yard drive to extend their lead. C.J. Uzomah kept the drive alive with a fourth-down pass to Dixon. Raahmil Brantley's three-yard TD run made it 14-0.
Uzomah hooked up with Justin Dickens for a 26-yard pass to the 1-yard line on North's next series. It was Uzomah's sixth straight completion as he finished 14 of 22 for 165 yards. Brantley, who had 57 yards rushing, scored his second touchdown to put the Bulldogs ahead 21-0 early in the second quarter.
Dayton Overstreet blocked Centennial's punt and Forrester scooped it up for a 25-yard touchdown to put the Bulldogs up 28-0 with 1:53 left in the half.
Centennial quarterback Scott Laffler had a 38-yard run and then a 20-yard touchdown run to get the Knights on the scoreboard before the half 28-7.
Centennial (5-6) had success moving the ball, mainly on the ground with its triple option attack. The Knights rushed for 293 yards on 55 carries. The Knights threw just seven passes and two of those were halfback tosses.
Centennial's Zietrick Smith had a 58-yard run to the one and scored two plays later to start the second half and make it 28-14.
North responded with a nine-play, 80-yard scoring drive that Dixon finished off with a 17-yard TD run on a reverse.
But Centennial didn't back down, Laffler scored on a two-yard run to make it 35-21 with 3:49 left in the third quarter.
"They gashed us a couple of times on defense," Sphire said. "I never really felt like we put them away."
The Knights recovered the onside kick, but North's defense came up with a big stop. Brandon McGowan's tackle for loss on fourth down gave the Bulldogs' the ball back.
"We played pretty good (defense) until we relaxed and they came out in no huddle and they kind of rolled over us," North's David Park said. "We had to pick it up and fight back hard."
North responded with a 41-yard field goal by Jeff Hatley, who was also 7 of 7 on PATs.
"That was big," Sphire said. "That kind of deflated them, I think."
Uzomah threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Dickens and backup quarterback Scotty Hosch scored on a 30-yard run in the final minute to put the game away.