Losing four fumbles isn’t the typical path to victory. But No. 6 North Gwinnett’s defense atoned for the transgressions by coming up with four takeaways, clearing the way for the Bulldogs to beat McEachern 38-17 in the Class AAAAAAA semifinal at Tom Robinson Stadium.
North Gwinnett (13-1) will play Colquitt County on Saturday at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in an effort to win its first state championship.
“Our kids just kept playing and playing,” North coach Bill Stewart said. “It’s a testament to their heart, their character and their want-to. You have to play through mistakes, because mistakes are going to happen against good football teams like the one we played tonight.”
Quarterback Jimmy Urzua said, “It’s awesome. It’s been my dream since day one and it’s finally coming true.”
Urza threw for 190 yards and two touchdowns and Tyler Goodson rushed for 135 yards.
McEachern (10-4) was led by running back Paris Brown, who rushed for 135 yards and scored two touchdowns.
The first half was a series of mistakes.
North Gwinnett fumbled the first two times it touched the ball. The first on a punt, which Dantaz Simpson recovered, the second on the Bulldogs’ first offensive play, which Dante Fleming recovered.
McEachern turned the second one into points. Taking over at the 5, Paris Brown needed two carries, taking the second one 3 yards for the score. McEachern led 7-0 with 7:57 left in the first quarter.
McEachern gave it away for the first time on the opening play of the second period. D.J. Turner snagged a one-handed interception and the Bulldogs drove to the 7, where Tyler Goodson fumbled. McEachern’s Jeffery Clark recovered.
After forcing a McEachern punt, North Gwinnett drove 80 yards and tied the game when Urzua scored on a 7-yard keeper with 2:10 remaining.
“No matter what happens, keep your head up and play the next play,” Urzua said. “The next play is the one that matters the most and we really took that to heart. “
McEachern took the short kickoff and moved to the 18 when Carlos Delrio-Wilson was picked off by Quinton Newsome, who returned the ball to the 47 with 60 seconds left. North cashed in on two nice passes, a 28-yarder to Javonni Cunningham and a 7-yard fade route to Josh Downs for a touchdown with three seconds left. North took a 14-7 lead into intermission.
“I would say it was a momentum-changer,” Stewart said. “Getting a score right before halftime and going up a touchdown, especially with the way the game started, that led us going into the second half. It does change the momentum a little bit.”
North Gwinnett scored on its first drive to take a 21-7 lead. Urzua and L.J.Fisher hooked up for a 32-yard touchdown pass.
McEachern answered by driving to the 9, but had to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Roben Rodriquez to cut the lead to 21-10. North Gwinnett responded with a 27-yard field goal by Cameron Clark for a 24-10 lead with 2:19 left.
The Bulldogs kept McEachern off the board on its next possession, but Urua fumbled on third down and McEachern recovered at North’s 6. Two plays later Brown powered in from the 3, cutting the lead to 24-17 with 8:29 left.
North Gwinnett couldn’t pad its lead, but managed to force McEachern to give it up on downs. The Bulldogs then put it away when Goodson broke free for a 43-yard touchdown. The Bulldogs added another score when linebacker Jayden McDonald stripped a receiver and ran 20-yards for a touchdown.