NORCROSS - Both North Gwinnett and Norcross were lamenting missed opportunities in their Region 7-AAAAA game Friday night at Blue Devil Stadium.
The host Blue Devils had only limited success capitalizing on an early break and two North miscues.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs could never fully put Norcross away after coming back from an early 10-point deficit and building a big lead.
However, North did just enough - thanks to an outstanding individual game by C.J. Uzomah - to hold off Norcross for a 26-16 victory.
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound junior quarterback accounted for 268 yards of total offense, ran for one touchdown and threw for another as the No. 3 state-ranked Bulldogs (4-0, 2-0) gained the important region victory.
That doesn't mean coach Bob Sphire was completely satisfied with the night's events.
"That was about as ugly a football game as I've seen in seen in my 29 years (of coaching) in a lot of ways," Sphire said after a lengthy post-game meeting with his team. "But at the same time, I'm really proud of them for the way they gutted and found a way to be successful."
They were forced into a gut check time by a little bad luck and some self-inflicted wounds in the early minutes.
Subbing for an injured Connor Hawk, Norcross kicker Chris Bingham slipped on a field left soft by this week's rains, and sent a line drive towards the front line of North blockers.
But the ball hit off one of the up men, and Isaiah Hinsley recovered on the North 44-yard line.
Though they went three-and-out, the Blue Devils got two more chances early by recovering two fumbles deep in North territory.
They cashed in on the combination of the first two with Ronald Rose's 14-yard touchdown pass to Geremy Davis.
However, they could only turn the final break into Bingham's 26-yard field goal to take a 10-0 lead with 6:21 left in the first quarter.
"Only getting 10 out of that (was a turning point)," Norcross coach Keith Maloof said. "We took advantage of one of their mistakes. I don't think we took (full) advantage of both. Then we let them back in it. ... But our kids fought. Their kids fought. It was a hard-hitting game."
By the second quarter, North began to get a better grip on the ball and got its offense moving.
Uzomah capped an 11-play, 74-yard drive with his 1-yard sneak to bring the Bulldogs to within 10-7 with 9:19 left in the first half.
North's next drive took only six plays and covered 60 yards, and reached the end zone when Joe Jones scampered in from 6 yards out, giving the Bulldogs their first lead of the game at 14-10 with 5:04 left in the half.
Eric Wright then gave North yet another scoring opportunity by picking off a Norcross pass at his own 40 and returning it 19 yards to the Blue Devils' 41.
Four plays later, the Bulldogs cashed in when Uzomah hit Justin Dickens in the corner of the end zone for a 29-yard scoring strike with 1:06 left in the half, extending the lead to 21-10 heading into intermission.
North then had a chance to get some serious breathing room after holding Norcross three-and-out to open the second half, and then driving 72 yards in 13 plays and draining 7:43 off the clock.
But the Bulldogs came up empty on a missed field goal, and Norcross still had life even after taking a safety in the third quarter and Jeff Hatley connected on a 38-yard field goal with 7:12 to play to give North a 26-10 lead.
A 40-yard run on a counter by Kendrix Huitt, followed by a 13-yard run by Delino DeShields on Norcross' next two snaps quickly put the Blue Devils in scoring position.
And they scored three plays later when Davis came down with Rose's 18-yard pass. The two-point conversion failed, but Norcross was suddenly within 26-16 with 5:48 still left to play.
However, North recovered the ensuing onside kick and was able to drain enough time off the clock, while the Bulldog defense put the exclamation point on with its third sack of Rose on fourth down in the final minute to finally put the game away.