Mill Creek’s Gary Holness (29) tackles Norcross’ Clinton Lynch (2) during a game earlier this season. (Photo: Craig Cappy)
North Gwinnett had a 17-point lead in last week’s game against Duluth and quickly watched it vanish in the second quarter.
Three turnovers didn’t help, but the Bulldogs pulled away in the second half for their fifth straight win.
Ball security was a point of emphasis for No. 1-ranked North (5-0, 3-0 region), which hosts Mill Creek Friday in a key Region 7-AAAAAA matchup.
“That was one of the bullet points we discussed as a coaching staff this week,” North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said.
The Bulldogs can’t afford to be careless with ball against Mill Creek.
“I think top to bottom they are going to put the best 11 on the field. They have size and athleticism,” Sphire said.
Mill Creek found out last year how bad turnovers can hurt you. The Hawks led North 14-10 with two minutes left in the first half. Then North scored 20 points in the final two minutes to take control of the game.
“We had two turnovers and they came right back on us,” Mill Creek head coach Shannon Jarvis said. “North is a very opportunistic team. We can’t hand the ball over to them.”
Mill Creek (4-2, 2-2 region) snapped its two-game losing streak last week by beating Meadowcreek. Prior to the 47-0 victory, the Hawks fell to Peachtree Ridge and Norcross.
“The first thing we wanted to correct was penalties and we have with only two the last two games,” Jarvis said. “We have to continue to play like we have. We like where we are.”
Mill Creek will face one of the county’s top quarterback-receiver tandems in Hayden Sphire and Nate Brown. Sphire has thrown for 1,082 yards and 17 touchdowns, while Brown has 17.2 yards per catch and 10 scores.
Throw in receivers Caleb Scott and Almonzo Brown and running back C.J. Leggett and it makes it hard to defend the Bulldogs.
“(Our defense) better be looking forward to (the challenge) because it’s a great opportunity,” Jarvis said. “They put pressure on you all over the field. Our kids have to play physical. They have terrific receivers.”
North’s passing game has received much of the attention through the first four games. Leggett was hampered with a turf toe injury and only rushed for 237 yards and two touchdowns in four games. The senior was back to his old self against Duluth last week, rushing for 133 yards and four touchdowns. He also had three catches for 87 yards.
“He’s back to full speed,” Sphire said. “In our system being able to run the football helps so much because it opens everything up for us in the passing game.”
Mill Creek knows a thing or two about running the ball as well. The Hawks have two of the county’s top running backs in Carter Governale and DeVozea Felton. Felton leads the team with 422 yards and four touchdowns, while Governale has 363 yards and eight scores.
“We don’t go in with a set rotation. It’s based on who is the freshest,” Jarvis said. “All of them want to be the one with hot hand.”
Jonathan Hawkins, a Division I recruit, has started at linebacker the last two games and also gets carries along with linebacker Andrew Sciara.
“They are filthy wealthy at running back,” Sphire said.
North Gwinnett is 7-0 all-time against Mill Creek and none of the games have been close. The Bulldogs have won by an average of 22 points, including a 47-28 victory last year. It’s a trend the Hawks need to stop to have a shot at making the playoffs.
“I think our kids know,” Jarvis said. “You get to this time of year in our region and all the games are big. But having a region loss only makes it more important.”
A North Gwinnett win would only tighten the Bulldogs’ grip on winning their fourth region title in five years.
“We’ve really closed the curtain and focused on getting batter each day,” Sphire said. “We have to be more consistent in everything we do. There’s so much football left. All we can do is work on getting ready for this game.”
MILL CREEK at NORTH GWINNETT
Mill Creek Hawks (7-AAAAAA)
Coach: Shannon Jarvis
Record: 4-2, 2-2 region
Last week: Beat Meadowcreek 47-0
North Gwinnett Bulldogs (7-AAAAAA)
Coach: Bob Sphire
Record: 5-0, 3-0 region
Last week: Beat Duluth 52-21
Last meeting: North Gwinnett won 47-28
Directions to North Gwinnett High School: From I-85, go west on Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road until it becomes Suwanee Dam Road. School is on the right