North Gwinnett’s Mitch Hyatt (75) and Dante Sawyer (95) celebrate their 36-17 victory over Norcross by giving head coach Bob Sphire an ice bath in the final seconds of high school football in Norcross Friday. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
NORCROSS — Norcross may be the defending state champion, but North Gwinnett has solidified itself as a title contender this season.
Bulldogs receiver Nate Brown caught four touchdown passes Friday night as No. 1-ranked North rolled to a 36-17 over Norcross, ranked seventh in Class AAAAAA.
“It means we’re serious,” Brown said of the win.” We’re a state contender.”
Brown had 10 catches for 172 yards to go with his TD receptions of 15, 32, 29 and 29.
“This win means a lot, but we still have to take care of business next week against Meadowcreek,” Brown said.
North’s win continues an impressive roll through a juggernaut of an early season schedule. The Bulldogs now have wins over Camden County, Grayson and Norcross, three of the state’s last four state champions.
“It was unbelievable,” Brown said. “Everything came together in the second half. Hayden (Sphire) was on point.”
Sphire was 19 of 30 for 256 yards with all four TD passes to Brown. Caleb Scott added the fifth score on a TD pass from Almonzo Brown on a reverse.
Scott’s touchdown to start the fourth quarter put North ahead 29-17 and was part of the 26 unanswered second-half points by the Bulldogs.
“That first half was so frustrating,” North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said. “I really felt like our guys showed a lot of grit, a lot of character overcoming adversity there. They just keep plugging.”
Even though it was the Region 7-AAAAAA opener, it puts North in a good position to claim its fourth region crown in five years. For six of the last seven seasons, the winner of the North-Norcross game went on to claim the region title.
Norcross (1-2) built a 14-0 lead with scores from Josh Boyd and Chris Herndon. A two-yard punt by North set up Boyd’s 19-yard run up the middle for a touchdown with 3:46 left in the first quarter. Boyd was the game’s leading rusher with 87 yards on 20 carries.
The Blue Devils added a second score on Herndon’s 32-yard touchdown from A.J. Bush to take a 14-0 lead. Bush was 13 of 24 for 156 yards with a touchdown and interception. Herndon had five catches for 85 yards.
Brown caught the first of his four TDs with 15-yard catch from Sphire to cut it to 14-7. The score was set up by a 52-yard screen pass by C.J. Leggett when he got a big block from offensive lineman Dre Smith. On the next series, Bush scrambled to avoid a pack of Bulldog defenders and was intercepted by Carter Cross. The turnover set up Michael D’Angola’s 28-yard field goal with 7:27 left in the half.
“We kept having to try and answer,” Bob Sphire said. “When you dig a hole like that against a team on their turf, that can be tough. There was no panic. We were frustrated, but you wanted to reach down and do something about it.”
Scott returned a Norcross punt 29 yards and fumbled. After an unsportsmanlike penalty against the Bulldogs, Norcross had the ball at midfield. Bush had a 37-yard pass to Clinton Lynch at the five, but the Blue Devils had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Blake Bingham to take a 17-10 halftime lead.
After punting on its first possession of second half, North scored on its next four possessions. Brown caught TD passes of 32 and 29 yards to put North ahead 22-17.
“(Hayden) was checking to me seeing what was open,” Brown said. “He made the right choice, obviously.”
Norcross’ offense managed just four first downs in the second half and 36 yards of offense.
“The defense did everything right the whole game,” Brown said.
Tony Bradford led the defense with five tackles, while Cross, Dante Sawyer, Avery Elford, Robert Pucciarello and Bobby Young each had four tackles.
NORTH GWINNETT 36, NORCROSS 17
North Gwinnett 0 10 12 14 — 36
Norcross 7 10 0 0 – 17
Norcross: Josh Boyd 19 run (Blake Bingham kick) 3:39
Norcross: Chris Herndon 32 pass from A.J. Bush (Bingham kick) 11:03
North Gwinnett: Nate Brown 15 pass from Hayden Sphire (Michael D’Angola kick) 9:19
North Gwinnett: Michael D’Angola 28 FG, 7:27
Norcross: Bingham 26 FG, :37
North Gwinnett: Brown 32 pass from Sphire (Two-point conversion failed) 7:45
North Gwinnett: Brown 29 pass from Sphire (Two-point conversion faile) 3:11
North Gwinnett: Caleb Scott 35 pass from Almonzo Brown (D’Angola kick) 11:28
North Gwinnett: Brown 29 pass from Sphire (D’Angola kick)
First downs 10 10
Rushes-yards 22-10 32-100
Comp-Att-Int 20-31-0 13-24-1
Passing yards 291 156
Penalties-yards 11-100 8-56
Fumbles-lost 1-1 0-0
RUSHING — North Gwinnett: C.J. Leggett 13-28; Hayden Sphire 4-(-24); Dante Sawyer 1-4; Wesley Edwards 4-2. Norcross: Josh Boyd 20-87; A.J. Bush 7-7; Myles Autry 3-(-12); KaDarius Garrett 2-18.
PASSING — North Gwinnett: Hayden Sphire 19-30-0, 256; Almonzo Brown 1-1-0, 35. Norcross: A.J. Bush 13-24-1, 156. Nocross: Bush 13-24-1, 156.
RECEIVING — North Gwinnett: Nate Brown 10-172; C.J. Leggett 3-64; Almonzo Brown 4-30; Caleb Scott 2-46; Daniel Imatorbhebhe 1-9. Norcross: Chris Herndon 5-85; Messiah Francis 2-10; Clinton Lynch 4-57; Boyd 1-(-2); Autry 1-6.