CHATSWORTH, Ga. — North Murray's offense has garnered a lot of headlines this season, and with the Mountaineers averaging 34 points per game entering the GHSA Class AAA playoffs, it was for good reason.
It's their defense, though, that has made the biggest difference for the first-time region champions, and it again shined Friday night in a 28-14 first-round win over Monroe Area.
Next week North Murray (10-1) will host Jackson (8-3), a 28-11 winner Friday over Liberty County.
"They've got a great quarterback, but we were able to put so much pressure on him," Mountaineers coach Preston Poag said of Monroe Area's Selatian Straughter Jr. "Our guys just kept battling. They had fourth-and-short several times, and we halted them. We confused them some up front, and Chaisen Buckner and Dylan Flood were all over the field and had just great games."
North Murray's defense recorded three sacks and four other tackles for loss, picked off two passes and turned the Purple Hurricanes (7-4) over on downs four times.
Mountaineers star quarterback Ladd McConkey was his usual self, accounting for 253 yards (189 passing) and three touchdowns — a run, a pass and an interception he returned 40 yards on the game's first series.
"They spied on Ladd and he couldn't really get loose for many big plays," Poag said. "That's what teams are going to do with him, but it's hard to take him away completely."
The Mountaineers threatened to break open the game early, following McConkey's pick-six with a 17-play, 93-yard drive that took seven minutes and was capped by McConkey's 1-yard sneak.
Straughter, who did not complete his first six passes, started to find his groove just before halftime. He was 4-for-4 passing on a 91-yard drive, including a 2-yard touchdown to Dabarius Partee, to cut the lead to seven with 55 seconds left. The two hooked up again for a tying touchdown on Monroe Area's first drive of the second half.
North Murray, which gave up more than 50 pounds per man up front on both sides of the ball, had its running game halted but finally got a spark as McConkey hit Dante Tidwell on a 55-yard catch-and-run. McConkey kept the drive alive with a 17-yard completion to Hayden Hulett on 4th-and-4 to the 8, then hit him again two plays later for the go-ahead score as the third quarter ended.
Buckner ended the next Monroe Area drive with a sack, then Flood stopped the one after that with an interception. Midway through the final quarter, Tidwell's 3-yard run capped a drive kept alive when kicker Owen Hannah was roughed on a field-goal attempt.
"I thought we played well in all three phases," Poag said. "It was a hard-fought game. They were very athletic, a D-I receiver, the big lines and they are coached well.
"Just proud of them," he said of his Mountaineers. "This team just doesn't get rattled, even when they tied it up at 14."
Elsewhere, in what was a rough night for local GHSA teams, only Calhoun managed to advance to the second round.
The Yellow Jackets (10-1), who trailed early against Morgan County in Class AAA, got three touchdown runs from Jerrian Hames and a pair of touchdown passes from Jake Morrow in a 38-10 win. Calhoun will travel to familiar foe Peach County next week.
In Class AAAAAA, Dalton's season ended at Dacula, 49-18, while in AAAA, Northwest Whitfield fell 41-14 at Oconee County and St. Pius X defeated Heritage 42-14. In AAA, Jefferson downed Sonoraville 49-17, Class AA's Callaway routed Chattooga 54-7 and Trion lost 23-6 at Commerce in Class A public.
Christian Heritage received a bye in the Class A private bracket and will host Wesleyan next week.