File Photo . North Gwinnett running back Donnie Miles (1) runs past Colquitt County defensive back Jamal Phillips (34) last season.
For the first time since Bob Sphire has been the head coach at North Gwinnett, the Bulldogs are not in first place in the region at the bye week.
After going 2-0 in non-region play, the Bulldogs lost their region opener. North begins the second half of its season this week. The Bulldogs have not been eliminated from winning a fourth-straight region title, but will have their work cut out for the remainder of the year.
"We had a difficult schedule up till now," Sphire said. "If you look back at the body of work, we lost to an outstanding team in Norcross and beat an outstanding team in Colquitt."
North began the year with a 16-14 victory over then No. 3 ranked Colquitt County. The Bulldogs used a last-second field goal by Michael D'Angola for the win. The win propelled North to No. 4 in the state
They followed that up with a 38-0 win over South Carolina power A.C. Flora.
North opened region play with a 31-21 loss to Norcross. It was the first time they fell to the Blue Devils since 2007. The loss snapped North's 22-game region winning streak.
"You hate to be down the first game in the region," Sphire said. "We have to dig ourselves out of that region hole."
North (3-1, 1-1 in region) responded by beating Meadowcreek 45-20 to even its region record. The Bulldogs will play Duluth this Friday.
"We're working really hard to develop as much depth as we can," Sphire said.
North has averaged 30 points a game this season and the offense has been led by first-year starting quarterback Michael Haynes. The senior has thrown for 786 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
"Michael has done a great job making some plays," Sphire said.
Almonzo Brown (11 catches, 155 yards), Jonathan Lewis (10 catches, 108 yards), Russell King (nine catches, 106 yards), Cam Lewis (nine catches, 120 yards) and Caleb Scott (five catches, 134 yards) have been Haynes' top receivers.
"We've given him some targets to make plays," Sphire said.
Andy Kwon and Alex Stoher have been North's top linemen early in the season.
"They bring a ton of experience," Sphire. "They are strong and explosive. They've been two constants."
Sphire's biggest concern is the running game. The have rushed for just 504 yards as a team this year. Haynes is the leading rusher with 191 yards, while Donnie Miles has 114 yards and Nick Andryusky has rushed for 98 yards.
"We've got to get better running the football," Sphire said. "We're not nearly as potent as we've been the last few years. We're having to throw to set up the run, so that's a concern."
North's defense has been a strongpoint. The Bulldogs held Colquitt's high scoring offense to just 14 points and shutout A.C. Flora. However, the 31 points they allowed to Norcross is the most since a 2009 playoff loss to Camden County.
"I think they played better early than they have recently, which is a concern," Sphire said.
Linebacker Carter Cross leads the defense with 32 tackles and six for loss.
"That's one young man that goes hard every snap in practice and that shows up on game night," Sphire said. "He knows how to play the game of football."
Jalen Brooks, a Maryland commitment, has 22 tackles, seven for loss, two sacks and an interception.
Defensive linemen Dante Sawyer (22 tackles, five for loss) and Preston Green (23 tackles, eight for loss, two sacks) have been strong along the defensive line.
"Preston is in the same category as Carter and you can say the same about Bobby Young," Sphire said. "Those guys can be the foundation of our program."
Young has been solid in the secondary along with Miles, a North Carolina commitment.
North still has playoff contenders Mill Creek, Collins Hill and Peachtree Ridge on its schedule. But Sphire isn't looking past Duluth, who the Bulldogs have beaten the last 14 times.
"I don't have the luxury to look that far down the road," Sphire said. "We're trying to get better on the field."