On the road for the final game of the 2019 regular season, the Dawson County Tigers took on the North Hall Trojans in a battle for the region 7-AAA runners-up title and the second seed in the upcoming GHSA State Playoffs.
In a game that featured two of the region’s top defensive units, with the Tigers allowing an average of 18 points a game and the Trojans holding opponents to a mere 15 points, the teams combined for 77 points and 922 yards of total offense as North Hall squeezed past Dawson County by the final score of 40-37.
Relying on their spread-style, fast-attack offense the Tigers set the early pace of the game, scoring on their first two drives. Sophomore quarterback Zach Holtzclaw efficiently picked apart the North Hall secondary, finding senior Riley Herndon and junior Dakohta Sonnichsen for a pair of touchdowns.
North Hall, fielding a wing-t offense built around senior running back J.T. Fair, scored on their opening drive as well after Fair broke free along the home team sideline and carried the ball 42-yards for the first of his two first half touchdowns.
After the initial burst of scoring, the game turned into a defensive affair with both teams going three-and-out followed by a bizarre stretch of plays that ultimately flipped the momentum of the game to the favor of the Trojans.
Having forced their second three-and-out of the first quarter, the Tigers set up to return the punt with junior Isaiah Grindle back to receive. Calling for a fair catch, Grindle bobbled the ball and the Trojans emerged from the pile-up with possession on the Dawson 25-yard line.
On the first play from scrimmage, Fair appeared to have scored a touchdown only to see it erased by an offensive penalty. Given a second chance, the Dawson defense held the Trojans short of the line of gain to force a field goal attempt as time expired in the first quarter.
Herndon’s perfectly timed leap over the offensive line allowed him to block the kick, preventing the Trojans from scoring, but the ball rolled dead at the one-yard line. Starting from the shadow of their own goal post the Tigers tried to push the ball through the middle of the line, but the result was a safety for North Hall to narrow the lead to 14-9.
“It’s pretty rough when you block a field goal and it turns into a safety,” special team coach Brent Cox said.
Dawson County’s defense continued to play strong and forced a fourth punt from the Trojans. An excellent kick set the Tigers deep in their own territory once again, this time starting from the eight. Building momentum on the legs of both Grindle and Thomas, the Tigers moved the ball close to midfield when the Trojans capitalized on a rare Holtzclaw miscue, intercepting the pass and returning it 52-yards to take their first lead of the night at 16-14.
Putting his mistake behind him, Holtzclaw responded by leading the Tigers downfield on their third scoring drive of the half, finding Thomas for a critical third down conversion before tossing the ball to Sonnichsen for a 4-yard touchdown that put the Tigers back on top at 21-16.
The team’s exchanged punts for a second time, and with less than a minute on the clock it appeared that the Tigers would carry their lead into the locker room at half-time until Fair broke his second long run of the half, this one for 62-yards, to give North Hall a slim 23-21 lead as the clock hit zero.
North Hall opened the half with another huge run, this time by senior Jacob Dickey, to extend their lead to 30-21, but then the pace of play slowed dramatically as the Trojans mounted two clock-killing drives to keep the Tigers’ offense off the field for the bulk of the second half.
For their opening drive, the Tigers drove the length of the field, highlighted by a Herndon to Sonnichsen fake-punt conversion, only to come away with no points as a bad snap derailed the field goal attempt to give the Trojans the ball on the one-yard line.
Using the remainder of the third quarter, North Hall pounded the Tigers with short runs, moving the ball just enough to advance the chains and keep the clock running. For the first play of the fourth quarter, North Hall pulled a play-action pass out of the books and caught the Tigers by surprise to open the period with a 60-yard strike to take a 16-point lead with 12 minutes left to play.
Moving rapidly, the Tigers once again traveled the length of the field, but this time finished it off with a 4-yard touchdown run from Grindle. Holtzclaw found Sonnichsen in the middle of the end-zone for the two-point conversion and it was suddenly a one possession game.
North Hall took another six minutes off the clock on their final drive of the game before adding a field goal to their total to bring the score to 40-30 with slightly more than two minutes to play.
It took one play and twenty seconds for the Tigers to respond as Holtzclaw found Sonnichsen streaking down the sideline for a 70-yard strike to bring the game down to a three-point margin.
Unfortunately, the on-side kick was recovered by North Hall and, after a Dickey first down run, the Trojans were able to kneel down the clock to hold on for the win.
“We had our opportunities, but we came up short,” head coach Sid Maxwell said. “We just have to put this behind us and go on to make some noise next week.”
Following the loss, the Tigers will be on the road for the third week in a row as they enter the GHSA State Playoffs as the third seed from region 7-AAA and will face the second seeded region 5-AAA Westminster Wildcats in the first round on Nov. 15. Kick-off is set for 7:30 p.m.