The Class AAAAAAA quarterfinal showdown between Marietta and host North Gwinnett on Friday night came down to a heavyweight bout between Bulldogs running back Tyler Goodson and Blue Devils quarterback Harrison Bailey.
For every punch, there was a counterpunch: Goodson with his three touchdowns and run after run that gained big chunks of yardage, Bailey with his 337 yards and five touchdowns passing that turned a potential blowout at the end of the third quarter into a three-point game midway through the fourth.
In the end, it was Goodson and North Gwinnett that made just enough plays to survive with a 51-41 win to advance to the state semifinals for the first time since 2013. It will face McEachern, which defeated Parkview in the quarterfinals.
“That was a tough, tough battle,” Bulldogs coach Bill Stewart said. “Marietta is a great football team. They gave us everything. We had to control the ball at the end, and that’s what we’ve done all year. That’s a game-winner right there. You’ve got to go finish, and they did.”
Goodson had delivered a number of game-breaking performances all season, but Friday’s may have been his finest. In the team’s biggest game of the year so far, he came up with 293 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. He had 11 runs of 10 yards or more in the game and broke 30 yards on four occasions.
His 54-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter helped get the Bulldogs offense, which had sputtered for much of the first quarter, back on track. The touchdown made the score 16-7, after North Gwinnett (12-1) had earned points on a safety and a 72-yard kickoff return by D.J. Turner in the first quarter. Goodson added touchdown runs of 13 and 4 yards in the third quarter, both times in response to Marietta touchdowns that had cut the North Gwinnett lead to two points.
When Marietta (8-5) closed a 44-21 deficit to 44-41 midway through the fourth quarter, it was Goodson who carried six times for 55 yards on the ensuing drive. Back-to-back runs of 37 and 16 yards set up the Bulldogs for a 13-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jimmy Urzua to Riley Walker to stretch the lead back to 10.
“That’s how you get here,” Stewart said. “You don’t get to the final four without being able to do that.”
Goodson credited his offensive line for the running lanes he was able to hit all night long.
“In my opinion, we have the best offensive line in the state,” he said. “We don’t have those explosive plays without those guys.”
On the other sideline, it was Bailey’s connection with receivers Ramel Keyton and Arik Gilbert that nearly brought the Blue Devils to victory. Despite suffering under the pressure of a devastating North Gwinnett pass rush, Bailey was able to settle in and keep Marietta in the game.
He hit Keyton for a 22-yard touchdown pass to make it 9-7 in the first quarter and again with a 73-yarder to make it 16-14 on the first play from scrimmage in the third. After a Goodson touchdown made it 23-14, Bailey hit Gilbert for a 7-yard score to cut the deficit back to two.
After falling behind 44-21, Bailey led three straight scoring drives, helped by two North Gwinnett fumbles, to cut the lead to three points in the fourth.
The one pass he needed back was his last of the game, an interception thrown to North Gwinnett’s Warren Burrell. Overall, Bailey was 24-of-40 for 337 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
“We were never behind, but those guys really put us on our heels,” Stewart said of the Marietta offense. “But that’s what playoff football is about. In the playoffs, it might be the defense one day and the offense the next. In the end, our guys just have to have each other’s backs and finish it off.”
Keyton finished the game with eight catches for 192 yards and three touchdowns for the Blue Devils. Gilbert had two touchdown receptions.
For North Gwinnett, Urzua passed for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Josh Downs caught eight passes for 105 yards and a score. Walker had a touchdown reception, and Cameron Butler added a 2-yard rushing touchdown.
North Gwinnett will host McEachern (10-3) in the semifinals. The two teams have squared off three times in the past – in 2011, 2013 and 2014 – with North Gwinnett winning the latter two.
“McEachern is always an awesome team,” Goodson said. “Our mindset is just to stay hungry, humble and focused, and come back ready to work.”