Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan — Grayson head coach Mickey Conn argues with referees during the second round of Class AAAAAA state high school football playoffs against North Gwinnett in Loganville Friday. North Gwinnett defeated Grayson 28-10.
Defending champion and No. 3 Grayson couldn’t get out of its own way, as the Rams turned the ball over four times and committed 13 penalties for 115 yards in a 28-10 loss to No. 5 North Gwinnett in the second round of the Class AAAAAA football playoffs Friday night.
“We turned the ball and we couldn’t overcome it.” Grayson head coach Mickey Conn said.
It was a similar recipe for disaster that was Grayson’s undoing earlier this season when it lost 22-7 Parkview. In that game, when the Rams were the nation’s top top-ranked team, they turned the ball over four times and had 109 yards of penalties.
The Bulldogs turned those four turnovers into 20 points, including two second-half touchdowns, while they took care of the football and did not turn the ball over the entire game.
“That was huge,” North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said of taking care of the ball. “They’re a physical team. They’re well coached. They try to strip the ball. They know all the right things to do from that standpoint. I thought our guys ran really hard.”
On its first drive of the night, Grayson moved the ball 62 yards on 11 plays to the North Gwinnett 17-yard line. On 3rd-and-1, North Gwinnett defensive lineman Donte Sawyer forced a fumble, which he recovered at the 19-yard line, to shift momentum and set the tone for the rest of the game.
“We knew from the start they were going to fumble the ball,” Sawyer said. “Just watching the fumble, we knew exactly what they were going to do.”
It was one of eight fumbles on the night for the Rams, three of which North Gwinnett recovered, as well as a high snap out of the back of end zone for a safety.
“That opening drive, we fumbled the ball,” Conn said. “We were about to go in and score and we fumbled the ball. That’s kind of the way it went. We must have fumbled four different snaps. We just laid the ball all over the ground.”
Later in the first half, Grayson faced 3rd-and-13 from its own 40, when North Gwinnett linebacker Carter Cross forced a fumble, which defensive lineman Preston Green recovered at the 25.
It was not only fumbles, but also turnovers, which led to points for North Gwinnett, as a pair of third-down penalties kept two scoring drives alive in the first half.
It was more of the same in the second half for the Rams, as running back and Clemson commitment Wayne Gallman fumbled the ball, which safety Bobby Young recovered at the Grayson 30-yard line. A personal foul after the play moved the ball to the 15.
After settling for two field goals in the first half, the Bulldogs turned this turnover into seven points on a 15-yard reverse pass from Nate Brown to Caleb Scott to take a commanding 19-3 lead.
A botched snap over the head of Jack Banda led to a safety to give North Gwinnett a 21-3 lead.
Sawyer made his second big play of the night, intercepting a pass from Grayson quarterback David McTier at the Grayson 26-yard line and returned it 17 yards, hurdling a defender, to the 9-yard line.
“He’s been a big-play guy from the opening game,” Sphire said of Sawyer. “He’s been a game-changer for us.”
Two plays later, North Gwinnett quarterback Michael Haynes found Nate Brown for a 7-yard touchdown to take the lead out to 28-3.
On a night when Grayson had visions of back-to-back state championships, it couldn’t avoid a repeat of a game that the Rams had hoped to be an aberration.