All the talk during the week about the North Hall and Gainesville game being an even matchup couldn't have been more spot on.
Both teams traded punches back and forth Friday at The Brickyard until Gainesville went heavily to the "Wildcat" formation in the second half and senior A.J. Johnson took control of its offense.
Taking the direct snap, Johnson rushed for second-half touchdown runs of 37 and 8 yards, and just as importantly ate up a large chunk of the game clock late in the fourth quarter to secure a 20-13 win for the Red Elephants (2-1).
"I'm sure glad he's on my team," said Gainesville coach Bruce Miller, referring to Johnson's 192-yard effort on 17 carries.
While both teams were plagued by inconsistency on offense in the first half, it quickly turned into a battle in the second half between Johnson and the North Hall defense.
Johnson's only first half rush went for a 1-yard touchdown and gave Gainesville a 7-6 lead in the final minute of the first quarter.
North Hall scored first with a 34-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Kanler Coker to wide receiver C.J. Curry for its only lead of the game. The remainder of the first half was highlighted by missed opportunities, including turnovers on each side, penalties and a missed short field goal by the Trojans.
Leading only 7-6 at halftime, Miller knew it was time to go to his not-so-secret weapon: Johnson. Against White County two weeks ago, Johnson, the Red Elephants middle linebacker, was called on to run out of the "Wildcat" and went for 75 yards to help secure the victory.
"I said at the half, if we were struggling, we'd get him (Johnson) in there," Miller said.
Johnson was certainly ready to answer the call.
Not a stranger to playing running back — Johnson played the position through the eighth grade — he displayed all the —characteristics of a top college running back. Taking the direct snap from center 5-yards deep, Johnson followed his lead blocker and went through, spinning to shed tacklers, and around Trojans (1-2) defenders, even breaking seven tackles on one play in the fourth quarter for a 29-yard gain, which set up his final touchdown run from the 8.
"It's why he's going to be a Division-I (college) player," Miller said of Johnson's athletic ability, who has Tennessee and Florida at the top of his list of schools.
"You can't stop him," North Hall coach Bob Christmas said. "I'm disappointed we didn't do a better job tackling, but overall proud of the way we played."
It took playing both sides of the football for Johnson to show any signs of fatigue after this game.
"I never get tired, I just love playing," Johnson said. "But I'm a little tired after this one."
Meanwhile, it's hard to take comfort in a loss, but Christmas was encouraged by the way his team didn't quit against Gainesville, the defending Region 7-AAA champions.
Trailing 20-6, North Hall marched down the field early in the fourth quarter and scored on a 10-yard run from senior Mack VanGorder. The Trojans got down field in a hurry with a 20-yard catch from Curry, followed an additional 15 yards on the next play on a pass interference call. North Hall senior Clay Quinn (17 carries, 70 yards) set up VanGorder's touchdown with runs of 6 and 4 yards.
Christmas emphasized that Friday's effort was much closer to what he was looking for after last week's 49-8 loss against St. Pius X. Against Gainesville, the Trojans tallied 245 yards of offense, including 60 yards rushing from Trevor Holbrooks.
In addition, senior defensive end/tight end D.J. Miolen is likely to return next week against Walnut Grove, and junior running back Imani Cross said he'll be back on the field on Oct. 1 against Chestatee.
"I'm looking forward to coaching this team now," Christmas said. "The way we played tonight, I learned this team is going to fight all the way to the end."
In the first quarter, Gainesville got its offense going behind the running of Devon Pierce (15 carries, 74 yards), and the passing of freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson (11 completions, 121 yards). When Johnson entered the game on offense in the final minute of the first quarter, he took the direct snap and went in untouched for the touchdown.
North Hall visits Walnut Grove, and Gainesville plays host to Franklin County next Friday.