The Hawks’ defense has also gotten better as the season has gone on, and it is playing its best football of the season at the right time.
Both units will have to come through tonight if Hillgrove plans to go to the state semifinals for the first time in its eight-year history.
The Hawks are yielding 20 points a game, but have stepped up in the second half of the season against the tougher competition. Following its 27-17 loss to North Cobb at the season’s halfway mark, Hillgrove allowed 20 points only twice in its last seven games.
Hillgrove defeated Camden County 34-21 last Friday in the second round of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs, and all 21 points allowed came in the first quarter. The Hawks forced two Camden County fumbles and an interception by Quincy Nelson.
“We play a three-man front at times,” Hillgrove coach Phil Ironside said. “We started with it (against Camden) and it was terrible and then we switched. We went back and made adjustments and they didn’t score any points for the rest of the game. The difference (between strong and weak defenses) is the guys who can fix things during the game and being able to recognize it.”
Hillgrove’s four-man front has had little problems getting to opposing quarterbacks.
North Carolina State-bound Bradley Chubb leads the Hawks with eight sacks and also has 101 tackles. Josh Price has 6½ sacks and Jaylen Reid has six on the season, with two coming against Camden County.
Hillgrove recognizes the talent of North Gwinnett quarterback Hayden Sphire, who has 2,205 passing yards on the season. The Bulldogs also have C.J. Leggett who has run for 1,207 yards on the year.
While North Gwinnett has been to the state quarterfinals six times since 2006, the Bulldogs have struggled to take the next step, losing four of their last five quarterfinals games.
Hillgrove is looking to extend that trend.
“They throw it well, they run it well and are an up-tempo team,” Ironside said of North Gwinnett. “We’re going to have to tackle well and not give up the big play and those things.”
Offensively, quarterback Elijah Ironside completed 13-of-20 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns against Camden County. He now has 39 touchdown passes on the season and can become only the seventh player in state history to throw 40 or more with one against North Gwinnett.
Game: North Gwinnett (11-1) at Hillgrove (11-1), 7:30 p.m.
Last year: First meeting
All-time series: First meeting
Prediction: Hillgrove 31, North Gwinnett 28