Staff Photo: John Bohn — North Gwinnett players including Alex Stoehr (58), Devondre Seymour (70) and Drequez Smith (55) watch the final moments of a 21-6 loss to Lovejoy in state playoff football game played at Lovejoy on Friday.
HAMPTON -- North Gwinnett had faced adversity all season, everything from adjusting to several new assistant coaches, a rigorous Region 7-AAAAAA schedule and more injuries head coach Bob Sphire would like to talk about.
On Friday night, the Bulldogs faced one more arduous task, but unlike they had all season, this time they couldn't find what they needed to overcome.
Facing an athletic and explosive Lovejoy squad in the Class AAAAAA quarterfinals, North (11-2) had its offense stymied most of the night as the Wildcats finally pulled away for a 21-6 win.
The victory sends the Wildcats to the semifinals in just their first year of playing in the state's highest classification, where they will take on North Cobb next Friday.
"These kids (for North) have so much of my respect," Sphire said. "They've battled through a lot this year. They went down slugging tonight but were beat by a really good football team."
Lovejoy (12-1) featured a dangerous passing game with two FBS recruits at receiver in JuMichael Ramos (Georgia Tech) and A.J. Jackson (Auburn), but it was the running game of the Wildcats that had success in moving the ball.
Running back Travis Custis, who has commited to Georgia Tech, gained 137 yards and scored two touchdowns, but earned every yard as he carried the ball 37 times.
While Lovejoy found a way to move the ball on the ground, North's air attack never got going as quarterback Michael Haynes was harrased all night.
He finished with just 75 yards passing on 9 of 15 attempts, due in large to the pressure from the Lovejoy front seven. Haynes would be dropped for losses eight times either on scrambles or sacks.
"We just never could get any rhythm," Sphire said. "They did a great job of locking us up in man coverage and did a good job of pressuring our quarterback. We never could get clicking and it was very frustrating."
Lovejoy's second possession of the game resulted in its first points as the Wildcats went 40 yards on nine plays for the TD.
The North defense looked to have held inside its own 10-yard line to force a field goal attempt, but an offsides call on the defense gave Lovejoy first and goal from the four.
Custis would make North pay on the next play as he bulled in from four yards out for his first TD of the night.
North's offense struggled from the get go, recording three-and-outs on its first three possessions. It wasn't until early in the second period that North finally got a break when a high snap on a Lovejoy punt gave North great field position at the Wildcat 40.
The Bulldogs picked up their initial first down of the game on that drive, but ultimately stalled at the Lovejoy 11. Michael D'Angola was called in for the 32-yard field goal and successfully converted, bringing the score to 7-3.
In the second half, North took the opening possession and picked up a first down, but would be forced to punt three plays after that.
A fake punt resulted in offsetting penalties, forcing North to punt. That punt pinned the Wildcats at their own five.
Lovejoy moved out of the hole to its own 36, but the North defense held again, giving the Bulldogs the ball back on a punt.
That drive resulted in the game's turning point when Haynes was sacked by Veion Robinson. During the play, the ball came rolling out of the melee to the North 40, where Tyrell Brown scooped it up and ran in 40 yards for the TD.
Trailing 14-3, North put together its best drive of the night, starting at its 35 and reaching all the way to the Wildcat 20. D'Angola was again called on for the 37-yard kick, but his effort hooked right, leaving North in an 11-point hole.
On the ensuing possession, North finally received the break it was looking for when Lovejoy was once again forcedto punt.
Another snap sailed high over the punter's head and rolled unguarded on the 26-yard line. Instead of attempting to pick up the loose ball, C.J. James fell on it, giving North possession at the Lovejoy 26.
The drive, however, would produce as D'Angola redeemed his earlier miss with a 37-yard field goal, getting North back to within one possession at 14-6 with 5:31 left.
However, Lovejoy put the game away on the ensuing possession, converting two huge third downs, eventually going 73 yards on seven plays, capping it off with a 1-yard TD run from Custis with 2:25 left to play.
"We had great effort tonight, we just weren't good enough," Sphire said. "(Lovejoy) has all the right ingredients and if they get a little better in their kicking game, they could really have it all going on."