North Gwinnett's Hayden Sphire
MILTON — Whether it was the cold rain, the return of Hayden Sphire at quarterback after a two-week absence, or a spirited effort from the Milton defense, it took awhile for North Gwinnett to get going on Friday night.
But the slow start would be cast aside after the first quarter as the Bulldogs rolled to a 34-10 win over Milton in the first round of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs at the Eagles’ Nest.
With the win, North (10-1) advanced to the second round, where it will travel to face Archer after the Tigers posted their first playoff win with a victory over North Forsyth.
Milton, which is still searching for its first win in the state playoffs, concluded its season at 8-3.
“We were out of synch early and didn’t have a lot of rythym,” North head coach Bob Sphire said. “We kind of got the ball rolling with our running game and things took off from there.”
Hayden Sphire returned for his first action since going down on Oct. 25 in the Collins Hill game and also got off to a slow start, missing on his first three pass attempts. However, he rebounded to finish with 161 yards passing on 8 of 16 attempts with one touchdown and no interceptions before leaving the game in middle of the third quarter.
“As the game went on, he got more and more comfortable,” Bob Sphire said.
Even though the passing game was being productive, it was the running game that really got the Bulldogs going, led by C.J. Leggett.
Leggett proved to be a workhorse, carrying the ball 21 times 131 yards and two scores, helping North find points when it needed them and keeping the ball away from the Eagle offense.
But at the onset of the game, it looked like Milton would be the one controlling the tempo as the Eagles picked up four first downs in the opening quarter while North was held to minus three yards total offense and no first downs.
Micco Brisker led the attack for Milton, rushing for 55 yards on 15 carries, getting a huge chunk of those in the first quarter as he helped set up a 31-yard field goal from Jordan Genovese on the Eagles’ second possession.
But it all changed in the second quarter as North erupted for 20 points.
The first of those came on North’s first possession in the second when it went 55 yards on eight plays. Dante Sawyer, who normally sees action at defensive end, carried the ball four times on the drive, ending it with an 8-yard TD run around the right end.
Milton took a three and out on its next set of downs and North responded by going 79 yards on six plays, capping it off when Leggett bounced off a pile of defenders at the line and raced in 54 yards down the left side to stretch the lead to 14-3.
The Eagles fumbled on its next play from scrimmage with the Bulldogs recovering at the Eagle 25. Five plays later, North made Milton pay for the turnover with its third TD of the quarter, this one coming on Leggett’s 1-yard plunge.
With the offense finally getting its stride, the defense also stiffened, keeping the Eagles from recording a first down until 5:48 left to play in the game.
North’s next score came via its passing game when Nate Brown took a quick screen pass on the right side from Hayden Sphire and outran the Milton defense for an 80-yard score, stretching the lead to 27-3. Wesley Edwards would build on it even more in the fourth with a 17-yard TD run.
Milton kept fighting until the end and notched its lone TD in the waning seconds when Chase Polkow was able to control a tipped pass in the end zone on a 28-yard pass from Cody Sant.