SUWANEE -- Faced with a prolific opposing offense in its first-round Class AAAAAAA state playoff game against Cherokee, North Gwinnett decided to fight power with power.
Between the collective effort from their offense and a prolific individual night from Barrett Carter in particular, the Bulldogs flexed their muscles for a 29-16 victory Friday night at Tom Robinson Memorial Stadium.
Carter, a consensus four-star prospect and one of the highest-rated linebackers in the nation, was a one-man wrecking crew on both sides of the ball.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior did his usual damage on the defensive side of the ball, recording three sacks and recovering a fumble.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Carter put together a career night, running 17 times for 202 yards and four touchdowns to help North Gwinnett (8-3) advance to the second round, where it will travel to West Forsyth next week.
“I think it was,” Carter said when asked if the 17 carries was the most work he had ever gotten on offense in his career, “but it's nothing I can't handle. I'm just glad that we got the win. I'm glad that I got to contribute to my team's success, and I'm just ready to move on to the next game.”
Barrett was a big contributor to a Bulldogs defense that harassed and pressured a Cherokee offense that came into the game averaging 359.8 yards and and 27.8 points per game.
The Warriors (8-3) put some impressive numbers, including 276 yards on 22-of-35 passing from quarterback A.J. Swann, six receptions each by Keith Adams Jr. and Adarrius Harshaw, 78 receiving yards and two TDs by Hayden Shockley and 61 more yards by Brady Borcherer.
However, many of those yards came after North Gwinnett had already built a sizeable lead, and the Bulldogs were relentless in sacking Swann six times for 57 yards in losses, and stifling Cherokee's running game by holding Adams -- who came into the game with 1,313 yards and 14 TDs on the season -- to just 7 yards on 12 carries.
“They smothered us,” said Cherokee coach Josh Shaw, a former assistant to North Gwinnett coach Bill Stewart while at Etowah more than a decade ago. “I mean, they absolutely smothered us. Barrett Carter is as good as advertised. He's a tremendous player, and (Stewart) is best defensive coach -- one of the best that I know.
“Their kids are well-coached, and we just made too many mistakes. You can't turn it over like we did, and those turnovers were caused by their defense.”
Led by Carter, the North Gwinnett defense had Cherokee's offense under siege from the start, limiting the Warriors to just 59 total yards in the first half and sacking Swann four times -- including twice by the Clemson-committed linebacker -- in the opening 24 minutes.
The problem for the Bulldogs' offense was that it had its own problems generating positive yardage, managing just five first downs during the half.
But North Gwinnett created a big scoring opportunity early in the first quarter after punter Cody Leach backed up Cherokee in the shadow of its own end zone.
On third-and-10, Swann bobbled the snap, and Carter pounced on it to set the Bulldogs up on the Warriors' 2-yard line. Carter then lined up in the wildcat and took the direct snap before barreling in from 2 yards out for the touchdown.
A low snap thwarted Leach's point-after attempt, but North Gwinnett had a 6-0 lead with 9:26 left in the first half.
But after going nowhere most of the opening stanza, Swann and Cherokee's offense found a brief opening late in the half and capitalize on it.
The 6-3, 190-pound junior found Shockley along behind the North Gwinnett secondary and hit him for a 46-yard scoring strike. The snap for the point-after sailed high and forced kicker Joel Stahl to simply fall on the ball, but the TD tied the game 6-all with 1:33 left in the half.
But that was enough time for Carter to do some more damage with his legs after the North offense following a touchback on the ensuing kickoff.
The senior rumbled his way to gains of 18, 27, 13, 7 and 24 yards that helped offset a holding penalty and a 5-yard loss on an end around.
That left North Gwinnett at the Cherokee 16 with 5 seconds left in the half, just enough time for Leach to boot through a 33-yard field goal as time expired, sending the Bulldogs into intermission with a 9-6 lead.
“In playoff ball, you've got to be able to bounce back when you get scored on and then do your thing,” Stewart said. “That was a monster three points (right before the half). We talk about that all the time. Scoring right before the half is a huge momentum deal. You score right before the half, and you go in you go in with a little something. And it was a good fashion how we did it.”
It took a while, but North Gwinnett was able to continue that momentum into the second half.
Quarterback Ethan Washington broke free for 50 of his 88 yards on the night to bring the ball into the red zone at the Cherokee 4.
It took all four downs for the Bulldogs to finally find the end zone, but Carter found room off the left tackle and cruised in for a 1-yard TD that extended the lead to 16-6 with 3:37 left in the third quarter.
Stahl kicked a 27-yard field goal to bring Cherokee to within 16-9 with 10 seconds left in the quarter, but two more big plays helped North break things open in the final frame.
Multiple Bulldogs swarmed under Swann and knocked the ball loose as in the act of throwing, with Kayden McDonald corralling the loose ball to set North up at the Warriors' 9.
Carter then dashed around the right end on the next snap to extend the lead to 23-9 with 6:35 to play before adding the exclamation point with a 55-yard TD run to make the North lead 29-9 with 4:50 left.