North Gwinnett 45, Mill Creek 3

North Gwinnett coach Bill Stewart will never again need to convince his football team about the importance of the tip drills they do every day in practice.

The Class AAAAAAA No. 8 Bulldogs intercepted three passes after they were tipped, turned two into touchdowns, and outslugged No. 10 Mill Creek 45-3 on Friday at Mill Creek’s Markham Field.

“We were playing hard and fast and had some great turnovers and every time we got a turnover we made it count,” Stewart said. “That was the main thing, we scored when we got the turnovers.”

North Gwinnett (6-1, 3-0 Region 6) was led offensively by quarterback J.R. Martin, who completed 11 of 18 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns. Martin also ran for two touchdowns. Eight of those passes went to North Carolina commitment Josh Downs, who had 121 yards and one touchdown. Devin Crosby rushed 14 times for 126 yards and two touchdowns.

But the key to North Gwinnett’s win was its defense, which had a fumble recovery to give them four takeaways. The Bulldogs scored on three of them. Led by linebacker Barrett Carter and Chuck Smith, North Gwinnett limited Mill Creek to nine first downs and 160 total yards. The Hawks (5-2, 2-1) got 102 yards on 21 carries from Chancellor Lee-Parker.

“They’ve got some great players, guys who can take it to the house at any moment,” Stewart said. “We felt good about what we did.”

Carter said, “This is coach Stewart’s old school [Stewart was the defensive coordinator before taking the North Gwinnett job] so every year we’ve got to put it on them and I thought we did tonight. Coach Stewart told me before the game that this was going to be a linebacker’s game and that’s what it was. We put it on them the whole night.”

North Gwinnett got it started on the first play of the second quarter when Austin Wainwright snagged a deflected pass and returned it to the 8. The Bulldogs scored on the next play when Martin threw a touchdown to Downs to make it 7-0 with 11:38 left in the half.

“We practice that all the time,” Wainwright said. “We practice ‘low ball’ all the time and it happened to come out. That was key.”

North Gwinnett had another interception on Mill Creek’s second play following the ensuing kickoff. Taylor Goodson grabbed the tipped ball out of the air at the 41. It was the only time North was unable to come away with points after a takeaway.

Mill Creek put together a drive late in the half that resulted in a 43-yard field goal by Brock Pelligrino to cut the lead to 7-3, but the good times didn’t last long.

With only 2:32 left, North Gwinnett was able to cover 80 yards for another touchdown. The key play came on third-and-11 when Mill Creek was called for a penalty that gave North Gwinnett a first down. With only 12.8 seconds left and no timeouts, Martin fired a 13-yard touchdown pass to a well-covered D.J. Hart for a 14-3 halftime lead.

Hart had two catches for 67 yards and also played all night in the secondary.

North scored a field goal on its first possession of the second half, a 42-yarder from Andrew Lim, and began to pull away after Corbin Hood came up with the third tipped interception. Three plays later Crosby went on a 47-yard scoring run.

Crosby added a 1-yard touchdown and Martin scored on runs of 11 and 4 yards, the second one after William Long picked up a fumble and returned it to the 4.

The winner of the North Gwinnett-Mill Creek game has won the region championship each of the last six seasons.

“That was a statement win,” Wainwright said. “Shows we can play with anybody.”