ATLANTA — Though rare, Buford has faced deficits in big games before.
Just last week, the top-ranked Wolves were down at the half before rallying to beat fifth-ranked Callaway in the Class AAA state semifinal at Tom Riden Stadium.
But the two-touchdown hole they fell into the first half of Friday night’s championship game against No. 3 Washington County was different.
Even after a 43-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Mitchell to Isaac Nauta with 13 seconds left in the first down sent Buford into intermission down just 13-7, this deficit still had a different vibe.
“We were just dead lucky to be down six at halftime. We knew it,” Buford head coach Jess Simpson said. “I told the kids at halftime, and no disrespect at all to Washington County, but that was about as poor a first half as we could play and be down six points.”
And with some confidence restored by the late first-half score, a quick three-and-out by the Buford defense, followed by Thomas Wilson’s 28-yard touchdown run just 1:54 into the third quarter, and the big, bad Wolves were back, and on their way to their sixth title in seven years with a 35-19 win.
“To come in here and flip the script (in the second half), and the belief they have in our plan and the belief they have in each other and what they can accomplish — as a coach, there’s not a lot much (more) fun than to watching your kids do something like that. And then to do it back-to-back weeks is just crazy.”
It wasn’t any crazier than the way the Wolves (15-0) fell into the first-half hole in the first place, thanks to some uncharacteristic miscues.
Among them were a dropped pass by Nauta that thwarted a big-yardage completion, and perhaps a score, on the game’s first snap, a fumble deep in Buford territory and two huge Washington County scoring plays — a 41-yard pass from A.J. Gray to D.J. Sanders.
As a result, Buford found itself in the unusual, and uncomfortable, position of trailing 13-0 with time running out in the first half, the biggest deficit they faced since trailing 24-10 late in the fourth quarter of the 2011 Class AA title game against Calhoun.
But the touchdown late in the first half changed everything, especially for Nauta, who earned a little redemption for his earlier drop and brought the Wolves back into the game.
“I knew I was wide-open (on the first play of the game),” said Nauta, who finished with three catches for 82 yards and the score. “I looked upfield too early, but it’s all good. In the end, we won, and that’s all that matters.
“I just knew I had to make a play for my team (late in the first half), and (the pass) just fell into my hands. I did the best that I could, and it was a touchdown.”
With confidence restored, the Buford defense responded with a big stop before Wilson went to work.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound senior first fielded the ensuing punt and returned it all the way to the Washington County 28-yard line before bursting through the line for a score on the next snap that put Buford in front for the first time on the game, and for good, at 14-13.
More importantly, it fully restored Buford’s swagger, which manifested itself in the Wolves outscoring the Golden Hawks 28-6 in the second half, including 21-6 in the fourth quarter.
“After we got behind (early) a lot of guys’ heads were down,” said Wilson, who finished the game with 245 all-purpose yards, including 118 rushing yards and two TDs on 14 carries. “But the senior leadership and the coaching leadership tried to keep everybody positive. The coaches made some adjustments at halftime, and the players executed the adjustments. My fullback and (offensive) line, I’ve got to give them all the credit.
“It was the same as last week. Once we get up on a team, our defense will come in and play their best football. And the offense just stayed alert, killed clock and did what we do.”