Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett quarterback Scott Hosch (4) hands the ball to running back Joe Jones (2) during a game against East St. Louis in a National GridIron Football Classic game played at N. Gwinnett High School on Saturday. At right is North Gwinnett running back Jonathan Lewis.
For the third straight week, North Gwinnett will have plenty of eyes watching.
After going 1-1 in games at the Corky Kell Classic at the Georgia Dome and the National High School Gridiron Challenge on its home field at Tom Robinson Stadium, the Bulldogs jump into yet another high-profile showcase Saturday at Carrollton High School's Grisham Stadium.
This time, it's the Florida vs. Georgia Gridiron Challenge, which they will close out as the finale of three games between teams from the neighboring states when they take on St. Augustine at 6 p.m.
It might be tempting to wonder if the No. 10 state-ranked Bulldogs would be a little fatigued -- both mentally and physically -- from facing their third big early game after dropping a 26-17 decision to No. 3 McEachern at the Dome and beating Illinois power East St. Louis 41-0 last week.
But coach Bob Sphire is actually quite encouraged given the events of the first two weeks of the season.
"I was wondering how we'd respond last week because this group has never had a practice after a loss. The only losses they've gone through ended their season," Sphire said, pointing out the fact North has gone through undefeated regular seasons the past two years. "I didn't know how they'd respond, but I was very pleased. The whole focus was about getting better. There was no panic."
Nor was their any panic when East St. Louis rolled up 241 yards of total offense on North last week.
The Bulldogs responded by stiffening -- aided by 14 East St. Louis penalties -- and amassing 367 yards of their own -- 300 of them in the air from quarterback Scotty Hosch -- in blasting the Flyers 41-0.
"We broke down a bunch (defensively) the other night," Sphire said. "But I think (the players) learned that effort can take you a long way. Our guys got hit in the mouth, but they responded. They didn't do everything right, but they played hard."
That kind of effort will be needed Saturday against St. Augustine.
The Yellow Jackets are coming off a 13-1 season in which they advanced to Florida's Class 3A state semifinals.
While they are loaded with high-profile college prospects like McEachern and East St. Louis were, they may pose the biggest challenge to date for the Bulldogs.
They do have a relatively inexperienced quarterback in Sandon Mims, who started just two games last year, but surround him with a big powerful line led by seniors Devon Williams (6-5, 320) and Duke Welsch (6-4, 230) and have several solid, if not spectacular, running backs, while seniors Matt Morabito and Timothy Verdell lead a physical defensive line.
Sphire knows that experienced players like Hosch, receiver Chad Scott and defensive end Jordan Washington will have to step up and provide leadership to help the Bulldogs meet the challenge.
"They're a team that's really well-coached, that plays hard and with a bunch of guys that really know how to play the game," Sphire said. "And they're used to winning. What impresses me the most is how well-schooled they are. They do all the little things right."