Staff Photo: Jason Braverman North Gwinnett's Russell King (5) tries to break the tackle of Peachtree Ridge's Harry Obiorah (5) following a reception in the game last week.
On paper, tonight's first-round game of the Class AAAAA state playoffs between North Gwinnett and Archer would seem to be a mismatch.
The host and No. 8 state-ranked Bulldogs (9-1) are in the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season, the visiting Tigers (5-5) are making their postseason debut in just their second varsity season, and third overall.
But North coach Bob Sphire is preparing his team to meet Archer the same way he would with any other opponent.
That's because he can relate with the situation the Tigers find themselves in, having guided a new program to its first playoff appearances at Lexington Catholic High School in Kentucky in 1993.
"I do know it's an exciting time for a program like that," Sphire said. "I know we played with a lot of energy (at Lexington Catholic), ... and Archer is probably going through a lot of the same things. It's a real building step for that program."
And there is plenty of reason for Sphire and the Bulldogs to respect Archer.
The Tigers have fought their way into the playoffs behind a multi-faceted running game, led by running back Ernest Alexander (134-895, 17 TDs) and quarterback Jarvis Holley 134-717, 8 TDs).
Though Archer coach Andy Dyer knows that running game will have its work cut out for it against a North defensive front that is athletic and physical, especially on the corners with defensive ends like Mississippi State commit Jordan Washington and Justin Alabi.
"Their front seven -- front eight, really -- are extremely skilled," Dyer said of the Bulldogs. "They're big and strong -- a lot like Grayson. And we know Coach Sphire does a great job with their offense."
Indeed, success for the Archer offense is not only imperative for producing points, but also limiting the possessions for North's balanced and prolific offense.
North has gotten a lot of good work from running backs Donnie Miles and Joe Jones lately, but crowding the box may make the Tigers vulnerable to the arm of quarterback Scotty Hosch and receivers like Chad Scott. Archer's defense has been solid against both most of the year behind linebacker Derek Parker (107 tackles, 1 sack) and safety Deondre Singleton (30 tackles, 7 INTs).
But as dominant as the Bulldogs can be on both sides of the line on scrimmage, Sphire says his team must also play more attention to detail with some of the little things in order to keep Archer from hanging around.
"We've got to play better on special teams," Sphire said. "Two weeks ago against Duluth, we gave up a touchdown on a punt return. Last week (against Peachtree Ridge), we gave up a big kickoff return. We can't continue to do those things in the playoffs."
Still, as important as each area of the game is in the postseason, it's hard not to focus on playoff experience -- North's wealth of it and Archer's lack of it -- as a factor tonight.
However, while Dyer acknowledges that aspect of the game, it is not something he or his Tigers plan on dwelling on.
"We haven't really talked about that at all," Dyer said. "We've just concentrated on us and executing and getting as prepared as we can."