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Defense a premium in Hawks, Comets matchup

John Small likes his offense.

Not just his, but all offenses. The South Gwinnett head coach has turned the Comets into a formidable team with a spread attack that puts up points in bunches. This season alone, South Gwinnett is averaging 40.5 points per game. They have scored over 50 three times and the least they have put up was 21.

Mill Creek at South Gwinnett

• Who: Mill Creek Hawks (7-AAAAA) at South Gwinnett Comets (8-AAAAA)

• When: Today, 7:30 p.m.

• Where: South Gwinnett High School (From Ga. Highway 78, go south on Skyland Drive. School is on the left.)

• Coaches: Shannon Jarvis, Mill Creek; John Small, South Gwinnett

• Records: Mill Creek 6-5; South Gwinnett 9-2

• Last week: Mill Creek beat Etowah 32-7; South Gwinnett beat West Forsyth 31-7

• Winner plays: M.L. King-Colquitt County winner

• Mill Creek leaders:

Rushing: John Russ, 740

Passing: Russ, 1,874

Receiving: Brandon Hayman, 858

Tackles: Kelsey Griffin, 86

Interceptions: Hayden Smith, 3

• South Gwinnett leaders:

Rushing: Aaron Wimberly, 1,088

Passing: Kent Rollins, 2,095

Receiving: Kevin Gary, 862

Tackles: Chris Russo, 80

Interceptions: Several with 1

At Mill Creek, the offense hasn’t been explosive all year, but has awoken in the past few weeks as the Hawks have fought to continue their season. Over their current three-game winning streak, Mill Creek is averaging 26.6 points a game and that includes a 14-point output against Peachtree Ridge to help seal the second playoff appearance in school history.

So, both teams can score. The question tonight is who will stop the other one.

“Anytime you are in the playoffs you have to be able to run the ball and play great defense,” South’s Small said. “You can throw all the other stuff out the window. We are steadily improving on that side of the ball.”

In South’s first-round win over West Forsyth, the Comets allowed just seven points and put pressure on the Wolverines’ offense the whole game.

Linebacker Chris Russo recovered a fumble on his 12-tackle night, corner Darius Jones-Craven caused a fumble, knocked down a pair of passes and had seven tackles and defensive end Richard Shankle added two sacks to his total, recovered two more fumbles, pressured the quarterback three times and had another tackle for a loss.

In all, it was a dominating performance.

“We are piecing it together right now,” Small said. “Last week we played outstanding.”

Shannon Jarvis noticed and the concern for the Hawks’ coach is the Comets’ defense getting the ball back to its offense. After all, they can score.

“They can legitimately score from anywhere on the field,” the Mill Creek head coach said. “They do a great job of breaking tackles. They are just explosive.

“When you break them down it’s not a matter of knowing what they do, it’s a matter of making those tackles.”

Mill Creek has been putting up big numbers recently, but it is an offense built more on a steady attack. Jarvis hopes they can be steady enough to keep South’s quarterback Kent Rollins, wide receiver Kevin Garry and the rest of the Comets spectators.

“It’s no secret what anybody has to do to beat South,” Jarvis said. “We are going to have to get first downs, sustain drives and limit their opportunities on offense.”

That should start with running back Tyler Cierski. The school record setter in multiple rushing categories drives the Hawks offense and the senior has led the way for them into the playoffs.

Last week’s win was the first ever in the playoffs for Mill Creek, but it’s felt like the playoffs there for a few weeks.

“We really went to that different feel, really from the Peachtree Ridge game on,” Jarvis said of his team’s playoff intensity. “We were playing for a our lives three weeks ago. Our kids have responded to that feel for three weeks. They have raised their focus.”

This will be the first meeting between two schools tied by coaches who were assistants together, but it has a familiar feel to it. South is at home and Mill Creek’s trip is no longer than a regular season game. That comforts Jarvis only slightly.

“The good thing about this Friday is we get (the players in) a typical Friday routine,” he said.

But the playoffs are never typical and both Mill Creek and South Gwinnett want to keep playing. That winning feeling from last Friday is addictive.

“We are pushing our kids because we want that feeling again,” Jarvis said.