North Gwinnett’s Daniel Imatorbhebhe (15) gain yards after the catch against Archer’s Owusu Achiaw (30) during the Class AAAAAA state playoffs in Lawrenceville earlier this season. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
SUWANEE — It’s easy to take a quick look at tonight’s Class AAAAAA state semifinal game between No. 4 state-ranked North Gwinnett and McEachern and decide it would be an offensive shootout with points galore.
After all, points have been plentiful enough for both the Bulldogs (12-1) and Indians (11-2) most of the season.
And with playmakers on both sides, there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue when the two teams kickoff tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Walter Cantrell Stadium in Powder Springs.
In addition, both defenses have yielded a fairly sizable amount of points since the midway point of the season.
North has given up an average of 25.8 points over the last six games, including 32 and 31 in wins over Archer and Hillgrove in the last two weeks of the playoffs.
Similarly, McEachern has seen opponents score an average of 24.3 points over the same time frame, including 32 by Collins Hill in the Indians quarterfinal win over the Eagles last week. However, North coach Bob Sphire believes it might be doing a disservice to both defenses, particularly his own, to assume that both offenses will simply have their way.
“I’ll tell you what. They’ve made some game-changing plays,” Sphire said of the Bulldogs’ defense. “They’ve been very opportunistic, and they’ve been gritty when they’ve needed to be. They’ve bowed their necks when they’ve needed to bow their necks. I don’t have any qualms about our defense laying it on the line.”
There’s plenty of merit to Sphire’s view as the Bulldogs’ have forced opponents into six turnovers during three playoff games, which the offense has turned into 35 points.
And with plenty of talent like major Division I prospect Dante Sawyer (68 tackles, 6 sacks), Parker Sechrest (120 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), Avery Elford (90 tackles, 1 sack, 8 pass break-ups), Carter Cross (73 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT) and Jaye Stackhouse (34 tackles, 4 INTs, 7 PBUs), North has more than enough ability to make plays in clutch situations.
The problem, according to Sphire, is that McEachern does, too.
And while the Indians have a strong secondary led by Rahmoi Parsons (45 tackles, 6 INTs) and Glenn Frazier (120 tackles, 4 INTs), Sphire points out the strength of the McEachern defense starts up front.
The Indians boast one defensive lineman already committed to a college program in Louisville-bound defensive end Henry Famurewa (103 tackles, team-high 16 sacks), plus another impressive senior in McKenzie Billingslea (100 tackles, 14 sacks) on the other end.
But it’s the interior of the line, led by sophomore Julian Rochester (team-best 125 tackles, 11 sacks), that really concerns Sphire.
“They’ve got a ton of speed and athletes, but they probably have some guys inside — they’ve got a sophomore defensive tackle that is unbelievable. (Rochester) is as good as I’ve ever seen. He’s probably another one of those (Robert) Nkemdiche types who’s a nationally recruited guy. They’ve got a defensive end (Famurewa) who’s just committed to Louisville, and he’s their speed rush guy. But they’ve got two guys inside who are space eaters who can really play. (Rochester) reminds me of a young Richard Seymour-type guy.”
Of course, as good as both defenses are, both will also have their hands full with opposing offenses that have been quite balanced all year, and especially in the postseason.
McEachern quarterback Ty Clemons (91 car., 1,151 yards, 16 TDs) and running back Taj Griffin (151-1,146, 9 TDs) have each run for more than 1,100 yards.
Griffin has also been a weapon on special teams, as his 85-yard punt return that provided the winning points late in last week’s win over Collins Hill demonstrates.
Meanwhile, Clemons (82-137-7, 1,207 yards, 13 TDs) and Bailey Hockman (53-122-4, 920 yards, 9 TDs) have combined to give the Indians a formidable passing option, with much of the damage going to the likes of T.J. Rahming (54-1,004, 12 TDs) and Malik Williams (33-354, 2 TDs).
Likewise, North has had increasingly more options of late thanks to the running of C.J. Leggett (218-1,349, 21 TDs), who has run for nearly 500 yards in three postseason games.
And with Hayden Sphire’s (160-265-9, 2,385 yards, 31 TDs) injured leg slowly, but surely, healing, he has been able to maintain his strong production in the passing game with the help of receivers like Caleb Scott (62-947, 9 TDs), Nate Brown (55-984, 19 TDs), Almonzo Brown (27-484, 8 TDs) and Daniel Imatorbhebhe (27-340, 2 TDs).
“(Hayden’s) getting better every day,” Bob Sphire said of his son and the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback. “(Back-up) John (Urzua) was still not available to practice (Tuesday), which is unfortunate, but we’ve had guys step up all year. The next guy up. Nobody’s whined. Nobody’s complained. Nobody’s looked for excuses. It’s just been, the next guy.”