On a night where their offense was held somewhat in check, the Ringgold Middle School defense answered the call.
The Tigers scored two defensive touchdowns, forced four turnovers, snapped Trion's 16-game winning streak and avenged their only loss of the year as they captured their first North Georgia Athletic Conference championship since 2017 with a hard-fought 18-12 victory at Sam R. McCain Stadium in Trion on Thursday.
Several Ringgold players had their moments, but perhaps no one enjoyed a bigger night than defensive back Keyshawn Taylor, who came up with back-to-back interception returns less than 90 seconds apart to stake the Tigers to a lead they would not surrender, although it still took everything the Blue-and-White had to make sure the lead held up.
The defending league champion Bulldogs cut the deficit down to just six points with 3:10 to play and would get the ball back at their own 27-yard line with 2:31 to go after forcing a Ringgold punt.
Trion would convert on fourth-and-four to keep the drive alive and used a 15-yard run by Lane Harris to get the ball into Ringgold territory. But with just over a minute remaining, Brayden Roach chased down Bulldog quarterback Kade Smith for a sack, stripping the ball on his way down to the turf and covering it up to finally seal the title for the Tigers.
"They really played well and that's a really good team over there," Ringgold head coach David Crownover said of Trion. "They are really well-coached and just a class act, but our kids really played hard.
"We didn't feel like we played very well the first time we came down here this season (a 26-6 loss back on Sept. 10). But tonight, I felt like we had a much better plan and we really got after it. I'm really proud of them and really proud of hard they played."
Ringgold took the opening kickoff and drove to the Trion 14 before coughing it up and the Tigers would fumble again on their first play following a Trion punt. A blocked punt by the Bulldogs gave them ball at the Ringgold 21 late in the first quarter, but the Tiger defense stiffened.
A tackle for loss by Haddon Fries put Trion in a passing situation on fourth down from the 17 and an incomplete pass would allow the Tigers to dodge a bullet early in the second period.
What came next was Ringgold's best drive of the game and its only offensive points of the night. A big 34-yard, third-down catch by Judah Smith from the Tigers' own 19 was followed by 13-yard runs by Fries and quarterback Garrett Edgar on back-to-back plays to move the ball to the Bulldogs' 21.
On the very next play, Edgar rolled to his right and floated a pass just over the outstretched hands of a defender right into the waiting arms of Fries, who came up on a wheel route out of the backfield. Fries was able to outrun the defense to the endzone to give his team a 6-0 lead with 3:41 left in the half. The conversion attempt was no good.
Then it was Taylor's turn to shine.
His 44-yard interception return for a touchdown with 2:02 left before halftime got the Ringgold bench and the Ringgold fans to their feet, but it was his second pick-six - a 35-yarder off a deflected pass with 35 ticks remaining on the clock - that sent the visitors' side of the stadium into a state of delirium.
Taylor then put an exclamation point on the first half with a big hit near midfield in the closing seconds. The hit jarred the ball loose and Cole Runion recovered the pigskin to seal the 18-0 halftime lead.
But Trion didn't win 16 consecutive games by accident and they certainly didn't intend to go down without a fight.
They opened the third quarter with a quick, six-play drive, capped by a 4-yard TD run by Zach Camp, although the conversion attempt failed. Then, after forcing Ringgold to punt it away, the Bulldogs used a 15-yard run by Lane Harris to get to midfield.
However, Nate Owenby would thwart the drive by hitting Camp with a 5-yard tackle for loss before sacking Smith for a 7-yard setback to help force Trion to punt it back.
After Ringgold's next march ended in a turnover on downs at the Trion 29, Harris got free down the Tigers' sideline for a 69-yard scamper to the Ringgold 2-yard line. The Tigers would get two straight tackles for loss, but Smith would hit a leaping Jake Dawson in the back of the endzone for a 15-yard scoring strike with just over three minutes left to play.
Fries led the Tigers with 50 yards on seven carries, while Edgar was 4 of 10 passing for 82 yards, adding 18 more on 10 tough runs. Fries and Owenby also teamed up on a first-quarter sack and Roach also picked up a big tackle for loss in the opening quarter.
After Trion was limited to 31 yards of offense in the first half, 15 on the ground, the Bulldogs finished with 175 yards total offense for the game. Harris ended the night with 146 yards on eight carries, while Smith went 3 of 8 in the air for 31 yards.
It was the ninth conference championship in Crownover's 16 years with the RMS program.
"This is a good group, but let me say something about our coaches too," he added. "We have seven great coaches out here. We all just kept working and working and got better all year."
Taylor was later named the championship game's Most Valuable Player.