The North Hall High football team found itself in an unusual position Friday night at the Brickyard.
The third-ranked Trojans (11-0) hadn’t lost the lead to McNair (5-6), but did lose some control of the momentum in the third quarter of the opening round playoff game.
For the Trojans, it was an awkward position. North Hall led every game in the regular season comfortably by the time the third quarter rolled around.
But North Hall responded with two key defensive plays late in the third quarter to preserve a 41-20 win and send the Trojans into the second round against Sandy Creek (7-4) next Friday at the Brickyard. Sandy Creek defeated No. 10 Hart County 23-8 on Friday in Hartwell.
The victory for North Hall coach Bob Christmas marked No. 200 in his 33-year coaching career. After the game, North Hall athletics director Harold Daniels awarded Christmas with a plaque for his accomplishment.
"Every win is good, but in the playoffs it makes it even better," Christmas told his team after the game.
North Hall is the only Region 7-AAA team remaining in the playoffs after Gainesville, Flowery Branch and White County lost Friday night.
North Hall held a 27-14 lead with five minutes left to play in the third quarter before McNair started to threaten behind the speed and tough running of Mustangs quarterback Cesary Wilborn. His three consecutive first down runs off right tackle gave McNair some hope and put its boisterous band back in the groove.
But North Hall’s defense responded when the Mustangs got down to its 35. On third-and-3, North Hall defensive end Jackson Griffeth stopped Wilborn short of the first down on the same play he consistently used on the corner.
On fourth down, the Mustangs converted on a punt fake with an 18-yard pass to William Howard only to have it called back due to an illegal receiver down field violation. Then the Mustangs punted the ball away.
"That previous series, I had played awful, and I said it wasn’t going to happen again," Griffeth said. "That felt good to be able to give back to the team with a big play."
Griffeth led North Hall in tackles on the night with 15, and linebacker Thomas Sprague had 11.
Once North Hall got the ball back in its hands senior tailback Hunter Wolf took control with a 57-yard run on the first play from scrimmage down to the goalline. Trojans senior quarterback Fabian Jackson punched it in from the 1.
Wolf finished the game with 13 carries for 112 yards.
"(Hunter) was zig-zagging down field and I was trying to throw a block for him, but he kept cutting," North Hall lineman Colin Alford said. "He’s got the best vision."
"It was a big run," Hunter Wolf said. "But really it was my line that did all the work, I just followed the blocks."
Even after North Hall’s first big defensive stand, the Trojans had to do it once again. Before the end of the third quarter, McNair moved it deep again into North Hall territory behind the running of DeKalb County’s leading rusher Arnold Walker. He finished the game with 24 carries for 145 yards.
But on that drive McNair’s offense eventually became its own worst enemy with a pass interference and a penalty on a late hit.
On third down, it was Hunter Wolf’s identical twin brother Dylon Wolf that came away a key interception and the final momentum swing North Hall needed.
"Our defense was sorry tonight, and we definitely got exposed," Alford added. "But we’re going to get back to practice next week and work our butts off."
All night the Trojans, who led the state in scoring during the regular season (508 points), ran the ball at will on the Mustangs. The Trojans ran for 308 yards and finished with 380 total yards.
Bobby Epps, a senior, led the Trojans with 15 carries for 150 yards and three touchdowns. Epps scored on a 34-yard run in the first quarter to build a 13-0 Trojans’ lead.
And North Hall’s magic number on the night on offense was 42. North Hall senior tight end Courtney Allen scored on a 42-yard pass from North Hall quarterback Fabian Jackson with 5:30 remaining in the second period.
Just as soon as the Trojans could get the ball back, Epps scored on the first play of the ensuing drive with a nice cut-back move and went in untouched for the 42-yard touchdown.
Jackson also scored on two touchdown runs for the Trojans.