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Defensive effort helps South gut out 20-7 win over Berkmar

South Gwinnett’s Tuwile Wilson (20) runs for a first down during the first half of the Comets’ victory over Berkmar on Friday night. (Photo: David McGregor)

South Gwinnett’s Tuwile Wilson (20) runs for a first down during the first half of the Comets’ victory over Berkmar on Friday night. (Photo: David McGregor)

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South Gwinnett’s Donald Oneayula (17), Coray Keel (10), and Trevor Brotherton (37) celebrate Oneayula’s fumble recovery for a touchdown during the second quarter of the Comets’ victory over Berkmar on Friday night. (Photo: David McGregor)

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South Gwinnett’s Malik Brown gets past Berkmar’s Camden Terry (7) during the first half of Friday’s game. (Photo: David McGregor)

LILBURN — With penalties, turnovers and a few other mistakes fairly abundant, South Gwinnett wasn’t going to win many style points in its Region 8-AAAAAA contest at Berkmar.

But after struggling through the first half of the season, the Comets came up with a very opportunistic performance.

More importantly to South coach John Small, his team’s 20-7 victory that spoiled Berkmar’s homecoming Friday night was all about effort.

“They showed a lot of guts and character (Friday) night,” Small said after the Comets (2-4, 1-3) posted their first region win of the season. “They flew around the ball on defense. … It’s just a great team win. I’m proud of our kids.

“A lot of people have written off our kids, but we’ve never written them off. Our kids have got fight in them. Things haven’t gone our way, but our kids are fighters, and our kids our winners. We came out and challenged them to do their best, and they gave us their best (Friday) night.”

That was particularly true of the South defense, which held Berkmar (3-2, 1-2) to just 181 yards of total offense just one week after allowing 41 points to Central Gwinnett.

“Last week, the way we played on defense is not the way we want to play,” Small said. “We challenged the kids this week, and every kid did their job. … Our kids rallied around each other and made a commitment to one another.”

It looked like things might be different after a 31-yard Camden Terry return of the opening kickoff, plus a 15-yard personal foul penalty, set the Patriots up in good field position.

New quarterback Jadarrius Warner, who was replacing injured starter JaQuan Morris, then led Berkmar on a 10-play drive down to the South 16.

But a couple of penalties slowed the march down, and the Patriots came up empty when a fourth-down pass was off the mark.

“We were too scared to succeed,” Berkmar coach Jonathan Sanks said. “We didn’t finish the drive. It was downhill from there. We started off well, but the name of the game is to score touchdowns, and stop them from scoring.”

After struggling to move the ball in the first quarter, South, which finished with just 160 yards of total offense itself, finally took advantage of a pair of breaks to get on the board early in the second.

First, Coray Keel returned a Berkmar punt 20 yards to the Patriots’ 34 on the final play of the opening frame.

Three plays and a penalty later, it appeared the Comets would be forced into a decision when coming up short on third down at the 34-yard line.

But Berkmar was flagged for roughing Malik Brown after he threw a pass, and the senior quarterback made the Patriots pay two snaps later.

Brown eluded a rush and found a seam up the right side to dash to the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown, putting the Comets up 7-0 with 9:57 left in the first half.

South then gladly cashed in another break two plays and 30 seconds into Berkmar’s ensuing possession.

This time it came from Donald Onyeanula, who finally corralled a fumble that had bounced around several times at the Patriots’ 16 and bolted untouched into the end zone to extend the South lead with 9:17 left in the half.

Berkmar then got a break of its own late in the half when Deontay Holtz pounced on a South fumble at the Comets’ 25 with 1:29 remaining.

But a pair of ill-timed penalties and a dropped pass stalled the drive, and the Patriots turned the ball over on downs, allowing South to head into intermission with the two-touchdown lead.

Another turnover — this time, a Chace Reid interception with 1:10 left in the third quarter — helped give South some needed breathing room.

It took just five plays for the Comets to cash in, as Josh Shim connected with Greg Hollingsworth on a 9-yard scoring strike on the first play of the fourth quarter to increase the lead to 20-0 with 11:52 remaining.

Berkmar finally got on the board in the fourth quarter by taking advantage after Brown ran the ball following a low snap of a punt and was stopped at the South 28.

Randy Griffin crashed in from a yard out to pull the Patriots to within 20-7 with 3:43 to play, but the ensuing onside kick sailed out of bounds, and South was able to run out the clock for the win.