As emotional as it was to beat Collins Hill, and to advance to the state semifinals for the first time in 15 seasons, it came dangerously close to being one of the Indians’ most disappointing losses.
A combination of offensive miscues, costly penalties and a specials team gaffe allowed the Eagles to rally from 18 points down to take a four-point lead with just over 4 minutes to play.
A game-winning 85-yard punt return for a touchdown by Taj Griffin, and a game-clinching interception by linebacker Glenn Frazier with 4 seconds helped the Indians pull out the victory.
If McEachern (11-2) has a double-digit lead over North Gwinnett in the second half of tonight’s semifinal at Walter Cantrell Stadium and lets the lead slip away, the Indians may not get away with it this time.
Indians’ coach Kyle Hockman said holding leads isn’t always as easy as it looks and talked about what they need to do if they should jump in front early.
“It all about ball control if it comes down to that,” said Hockman, whose team will play at home for the first time since Oct. 11. “You can’t give up big plays (to North Gwinnett) and you got to make first downs. It’s a hard thing to do.”
The Indians will be going up against a North Gwinnett team (12-1) that’s also capable of staging fourth quarter rallies. The Bulldogs overcame a double-digit fourth quarter deficit to beat Hillgrove 35-31 on the other side of Powder Springs last Friday.
Once Hillgrove kicked a field goal to stretch its lead to 10 points early in the frame, North Gwinnett quarterback Hayden Sphire and running back CJ. Leggett started making plays. The twosome led North Gwinnett on consecutive scoring drives to end the game, the second coming off a Hillgrove fumble.
“North Gwinnett offensive is probably the most talented unit in the state,” Hockman said. “They have a strong offensive line. Their quarterback and tailback are fabulous. We will obviously give them different looks and we have to play fast and physical.”
In order to slow down Sphire and Leggett, the Indians will have to continue being aggressive up front. Hockman said his front seven dominated the line of scrimmage early against Collins Hill. Defensive ends Henry Fameruwa and McKenzie Billinglea have combined for 30 sacks this season and linebacker Julian Rochester has 11.
If McEachern can make Leggett uncomfortable, after he rushed for 152 yards on 39 carries and four touchdowns last week, chances of going to the Georgia Dome next week for the championship are high.
“We know about that running back,” said Frazier, who has 120 tackles on the season. “He’s like the Maurice Jones Drew of high school football. He’s short and big and we’ll have to stop him before he starts.”
Game: North Gwinnett (12-1) at McEachern (11-2)
Last meeting: McEachern 27, North Gwinnett 16 (Aug. 20, 2011)
All-time series: McEachern leads 1-0
Prediction: McEachern 24-21 OT