Norcross’ A.J. Bush (6) gains yardage before he is run down by Etowah’s Cory Burdett (4) during friday’s game. (Photo: Craig Cappy)
NORCROSS – On a cold, damp evening, the Norcross Blue Devils defense forced four turnovers to begin their march towards a repeat, scoring 28 second-half points for a 28-0 win over the Etowah Eagles in the first round of the GHSAA AAAAAA Playoffs.
“We know we have a great defense when they focus and come ready to play,” said Norcross head coach Keith Maloof. “Tonight they showed up and kept us in the game.”
Neither team could get anything going during their first two possessions, as both defenses were able to slow down the running game while the wet, cold, and windy conditions made it difficult to get anything going in the passing game.
The Blue Devils’ third possession led to back-to-back first down runs by senior quarterback AJ Bush to move just outside the red zone. However, after a holding call and two straight incompletions, Bush was intercepted by senior safety Ben Rowell of Etowah to keep the game scoreless.
The Eagles used that turnover and turned it into a potent drive, eating up the rest of the first quarter clock and much of the second, using a strong running game to get into the red zone.
The Norcross defense rose up and stuffed Etowah two times around the 14-yard line. After a delay of game and incompletion, the Blue Devils forced a 37-yard field goal that fell short to keep the game scoreless.
Etowah drove again into Norcross territory after holding on defense, but senior Ridwan Issahaku picked off a pass around the eight-yard line, bringing it back to the Blue Devils own 25-yard line.
“We have a great defensive line and we knew they could get pressure on the quarterback and stop the run,” said Issahaku. “When they had to throw, I took advantage of the opportunity.”
Norcross moved it over the 50 with under two minutes to go in the second quarter, but could not do anything from there as they were forced to punt and the game remained scoreless going into halftime.
The Blue Devils forced a three and out early in the third quarter, pushing Etowah deep in their own territory and forcing a punt. Norcross then moved the ball into Eagle territory and finally got within the five as Bush connected with senior Clinton Lynch for a 25-yard gain to the three.
Two plays later, sophomore Jamir Billings punched it in from a yard out for the first score of the game.
Etowah got the ball back and on the first play of the possession, senior defensive back Jordan Noil stepped in from of a John Oliver pass and took it to the house from 26 yards out to give the Blue Devils a 14-0 lead.
The Blue Devil defense came up big again toward the end of the third quarter. The Eagles drove down into Norcross territory and faced a fourth-and-3 from the Blue Devil 43-yard line where senior Malcolm Galloway came up and stuffed the run to force the turnover on downs.
Norcross ran clock well into the fourth quarter and capped the game off with Issahaku’s second interception and two touchdowns in the fourth thanks to a run from Bush and a five-yard score from Bush to senior tight end Darian Dennis.
“(Our secondary) are great athletes, they took a lot of heat earlier in the year and they refocused after the first two or three games,” said Maloof. “Tonight, they got payback.”
“It’s a great feeling to get a shutout to start this,” said Issahaku. “We work hard, are self motivated, and we expect it.”
Issahaku finished with two of the four interceptions while seniors Warren McWilliams and Jaquan Frazier each finished with seven tackles.
Though it was a slow night offensively, Bush finished with 16 carries for 94 yards and a score and added 8-for-18 passing for 66 yards and a TD. Lynch led all receivers with six catches for 67 yards.
“They now have to focus on next week,” said Maloof. “Physically we can do it, but mentally we have to learn our opponent and get ready every week.”
Norcross will be back at home next Friday as it hosts Brookwood for the second round.
“If we keep doing the little things right, big things will follow,” Issahaku said.
NORCROSS 28, ETOWAH 0
Etowah 0 0 0 0 - 0
Norcross 0 0 14 14 - 28
Norcross: Jamir Billings one yard run (Blake Bingham kick) 6:33
Norcross: Jordan Noil 26 yard interception return (Blake Bingham kick) 5:46
Norcross: A.J. Bush 21 yard run (Blake Bingham kick) 6:15
Norcross: Darian Darrius five yard pass from AJ Bush (Blake Bingham kick) 4:13