What was a grind-it-out, hard-nosed struggle for three quarters between North Hall and Cherokee Bluff turned into a wild scramble in the fourth quarter, and in particular, the final three and a half minutes that featured a furious comeback attempt by the visiting Bears.
But after several plot twists, the host Trojans were able to breathe a sigh of relief after a missed field goal in the final seconds allowed the final chapter to be written for a 14-12 victory Friday night at Lynn Cottrell Stadium.
Tanner Marsh posted 171 yards of total offense, ran for one touchdown and threw for another, the latter on a 69-yard pass to Ryals Puryear with less than nine minutes left.
But it was the North Hall defense that may have wound up being the biggest difference in the game with several key plays in the second half, including a tackle for a loss by Trey Patterson on a fourth-down stop, a pass breakup by Will Jackson for another fourth-down stop and another pass breakup by Britton Glover.
“I’m proud of how physical we played on both sides of the ball,” North Hall coach Sean Pender said after his Trojans (2-3, 2-1 in Region 8-4A) won their second straight game following an 0-3 start to the season. “Our kids didn’t back down. They bowed their necks and played real hard and got after it. I’m very proud of the way our defense made the stands that they made. We made plays when we needed to make plays.”
Those plays, and more, were instrumental in helping North Hall down a Bears (2-3, 2-1) team that has thwarted it the past two seasons in games that eventually decided the Region 7-3A title.
“It definitely makes sure we’re going in the right direction and positive,” Pender said. “This is a big program win for our team. To knock of the last two years’ region champions, and in a game where people didn’t think we were going to win this one. But we were able to pull this one off. So yeah, you can use this type of game, for sure, as a catapult.”
For the first three quarters of the game, it appeared seemed more like a grinding tank or marching infantry unit than a catapult.
North Hall dominated the first quarter and a half, possessing the ball for nearly 10 minutes longer and piling up 118 yards of total offense to just two for Cherokee Bluff to that point.
Yet despite the game-opening 17-play, 80-yard drive that drained 7:34 off the clock before ending with Marsh’s 4-yard touchdown run, the Trojans couldn’t add on to that early 7-0 lead despite driving inside the Bears’ 40 on each of the next two drives.
A bad shotgun snap that Marsh had to dive on and a 5-yard illegal substitution penalty on fourth and 2 from the Cherokee Bluff 38 with 8:01 left in the first half played a big part in thwarting those two drives.
The Cherokee Bluff offense finally got moving midway through the second quarter by marching 84 yards in 14 plays, converting on four different third-down situations along the way, including Asher Wilson’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Max Eubanks in the right corner of the end zone.
The PAT was no good, but the Bears has cut the Trojans’ lead to 7-6 with 1:44 left in the half, an advantage they would take into the locker room at intermission.
And after a pretty stagnant third quarter for both teams, the pace really began to pick up just over three minutes into the final frame with North Hall facing third and 18 at its own 20.
It looked like the Trojans might have to punt after a 6-yard run by Tate Ruth left them well short of a first down, but a 15-yard facemask penalty gave them new life.
And Marsh made sure they would take advantage by lofting a long pass down the left sideline to Puryear, who caught it in stride and outraced the Cherokee Bluff secondary for the 69-yard score that extended the North Hall lead to 14-6 with 8:41 to play.
But Cherokee Bluff wasn’t done, as the Bears drove down the field behind two big runs from Jaylon Carroll (12-83 rushing on the night) and two clutch completions by Wilson – a 16 yards strike to Eubanks on fourth and 14, and an 8-yard scoring strike to Jhace Justice with 3:37 left.
The two-point conversion was batted away by Glover, but the North Hall lead was down to just 14-12, and on the next snap, Cherokee Bluff would get a golden opportunity for the game-winning score when Kaden Thompson pounced on a fumble at the Trojans’ 32 with 2:47 left.
After a 4-yard loss on first down and a 14-yard holding penalty backed the Bears up, Wilson, who finished the night 10 of 20 for 141 yards and two touchdowns, came up with another clutch completion, this one to Thompson for 33 yards that took his team into prime scoring position.
Even after Glover batted a potential first down catch away from Justice inside the 5 with eight seconds left, Cherokee Bluff was in position to win the game with Michael Arbour lining up a 37-yard field goal.
However, the line drive kick sailed wide left, leaving North Hall simply needing to take a knee to secure the victory.
Despite that outcome, and the issues his team had on both sides throughout the evening, Bears coach Tommy Jones praised the fight he saw from his players to give themselves that chance to win at the end.
“North Hall came out here ready to play,” Jones said. “They did a good job. Unfortunately, we didn’t play well enough to win the game. I’m proud of our kids for continuing to battle to give ourselves a chance to in the football game. Unfortunately, we didn’t make enough plays to do that.”
Eastside 34, Flowery Branch 14
North Hall 14, Cherokee Bluff 12
North Oconee 52, Chestatee 7
Cedar Shoals 49, East Hall 21
Dawson County 56, West Hall 7
East Jackson 45, Johnson 0
Lakeview Academy 27, Strong Rock Christian 19
Lanier Christian 69, Pinecrest Academy 7
Oglethorpe County 63, Riverside Military 12