The first play of Friday's first-round playoff game between South Forsyth and North Gwinnett was a fumbled kickoff.
The first play from scrimmage was a 30-yard touchdown pass from North Gwinnett QB Ethan Washington to Kenan Holmes, and before four minutes had passed, the Bulldogs owned a 14-0 lead over the War Eagles.
South never quite recovered, and the War Eagles fell 29-15 in the first round of the Class 7A playoffs to end the season 8-3.
"We didn't play well," South Forsyth head coach Troy Morris said. "We didn't execute, and it started off bad. We fumbled the opening kickoff, they scored right away and we got behind the 8-ball. Our kids just kept fighting. We had chances to get back in it. We just came up short tonight. That's just the bottom line. We didn't execute when we needed to. They're a good football team and so are we, but we just didn't execute when we needed to. It wasn't a lack of effort — I promise you that. Our kids played their guts out."
North Gwinnett started each of its first three drives in South territory. After the War Eagles went three-and-out on their first offensive series — one that saw Ty Watkins sacked twice — North Gwinnett engineered a seven-play, 47-yard scoring drive that ended with Marcus McFarlane finding the end zone from 7 yards out to make it 14-0.
South's following drive netted minus-8 yards on three plays, and the snap on the punt was wild, forcing Chris Nelson to corral the ball and try to run for the first down. North Gwinnett stopped him short of the first-down marker and took over at South's 45-yard line.
Runs of six and 19 yards by McFarlane, plus a 3-yard pass from Washington to Cade Funderburk, gave the Bulldogs first-and-10 from South's 17-yard line.
Then momentum shifted.
Washington lost four yards on first down, then retreated 26 yards after the second-down snap sailed over his head. After an illegal substitution call and a sack by Nathan Efobi, the Bulldogs were faced with fourth-and-53.
After a punt, South took over at its own 14-yard line and assembled a nine-play, 86-yard scoring drive that began with Gavin Morris catching a screen pass and breaking multiple tackles for eight yards. A 33-yard pass from Watkins to Nelson flipped the field, then a 13-yard pass to Maverick Schippmann brought the War Eagles into North Gwinnett's red zone, where Nelson found the end zone on a 16-yard sweep to make it 14-7.
South's defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, which featured a tackle for loss by Cal Jacchia and Ian O'Dowd and a sack from Jonathan Haas, and took over first-and-10 at their own 47-yard line.
But a loss of four yards by Nelson and a deep incompletion with plenty of contact but no penalty gave the War Eagles third-and-14, where Watkins was dropped for a loss of seven yards.
North Gwinnett stopped Watkins in the backfield 11 times, and four-star defensive lineman Kayden McDonald finished with seven sacks.
"The big defensive tackle they've got that's whatever star he is, he's as advertised. He's good," Troy Morris said. "We had some opportunities at times, and we knew they had a good pass rush, but I'm just proud of our kids for continuing to fight."
South had another opportunity minutes later after Nelson picked off Washington, but the drive ended with a 41-yard missed field goal attempt.
North Gwinnett immediately capitalized, marching 80 yards on eight plays and increasing the lead to 22-7 after McFarlane's 28-yard burst up the middle and Washington's two-point conversion.
South responded when Watkins threw a 13-yard TD pass to Mason Capers, then found Capers again for the two-point play to make it 29-15 with 11:02 left. But Watkins threw an interception at North Gwinnett's 1-yard line on South's ensuing drive, and the War Eagles' penultimate drive ended with a McDonald sack on fourth-and-26.
Watkins was 21 of 33 for 210 yards with the touchdown and two interceptions. Nelson led the War Eagles with six catches for 64 yards.
"We probably wanted to run the ball a little bit more than we did," Morris said. "I think I got away from the run probably too much, but we had to play catch-up. Our plan wasn't to throw it quite that much. But like I said, our kids just kept battling, kept playing and kept believing."
South's quick 14-0 hole shifted the game script, as did North Gwinnett's relentless pressure.
"We felt good about our matchups with our receivers against their secondary," Morris said. "We thought that we had a big advantage there. We're a lot better when you're not sure if we're going to throw it, when we can kind of do either. We got locked into some passing stuff, so they just kind of pinned our ears back and came after us a little bit more than I think if we would have just been able to stay on track. They wouldn't have been able to do that, but that's how the game went."