MILTON — With each play late in the fourth quarter, Buford's confidence seemed to be withering away.
A single special teams play quickly rejuvenated the Wolves to a win that's sure to draw attention across the Georgia high school football landscape.
With Class AAAAAAA defending state champion Milton mounting a late rally to pull within three points of Buford, Boyd Farmer recovered a fumbled punt return with 2:10 left in the game to hold off the Eagles' comeback attempt and secure the Wolves' 26-23 victory in a battle between two state superpowers.
Class AAAAA's second-ranked Buford (2-0) saw a comfortable 16-point lead early in the fourth quarter quickly turn sour after Milton (1-1) quarterback Devin Ferrell rattled off late touchdown passes for 13 much-needed points. Meanwhile, the Wolves struggled to move the ball and churn the clock.
But the misplayed punt return by Adam Freas resulted in a loose ball, and Farmer, hardly hesitant to trot out a potential fair catch, quickly pounced on the ball at the Eagles' 22-yard line to completely reversed an entire quarter of misfortunes with one swift play.
"We always tell them to play through the echo of the whistle," Buford head coach Bryant Appling said. "Play as hard as you can beyond the point that you think you can, and good things will happen. Good things happen to people who run to the ball."
Elijah Turner rushed for 107 yards and two touchdowns and Gabe Ervin Jr. added 88 yards and a score on the ground to lead the Wolves, who struggled through sloppy execution at times and penalty issues to escape Milton with a win that's sure to teach a few lessons for Appling's young team. The game was originally scheduled on Aug. 23 as part of the Corky Kell Classic, but was rescheduled due to weather and moved to the Eagles' Nest in north Fulton County.
"In the end, getting out here with a victory is always better than not. I'm happy right now, but we have a lot of work to do," Appling said. "We're a young team, so I know we needed some momentum someway, somehow. The mistakes and the lapses of judgement and lapses of concentration was getting to us.
"I am proud of them, but it's still a sick feeling in my stomach right now."
One quarter earlier, things were looking up for Buford.
The Wolves turned a 19-10 halftime lead into a one-sided affair in the third quarter, first by halting a Milton fake punt attempt a yard short of a first down, then shutting down the Eagles' offense after they coughed up a fumble. They jumped ahead 26-10 at the 2:08 mark when quarterback Jarvis Evans Jr. fooled Milton on a play action pass and connected with a wide-open Justice Johnson for a 43-yard score.
It appeared that Buford was well on its way to a marquee win over a ranked opponent in the state's highest classification, but Ferrell used his feet to drive deep into the territory of a tired Wolves defense, then find Jack Nickel and Will Stax on TD passes to mount the fourth-quarter rally.
"They're a great team — they gave us a great test," Appling said. "We were up on them, and they didn't quit. Teams give in sometimes. I think they thought it would happen, but it didn't, and they were surprised."
Buford survived three personal fouls and two special teams hiccups on its way to the halftime lead, anchored by Turner's two TD runs and a persistent defense that held Milton to 96 first-half yards.
Turner's second run of the game — and the season, as he didn't play last Friday against Jonesboro — was highlight reel-worthy, as he rumbled through the Milton defense and found open space for a 65-yard TD run. But a botched snap on the PAT held the Wolves to six points, opening the door for Milton to take its only lead of the game on the ensuing drive .
The Eagles countered with their own jaw-dropping run by Ahmad Junearick, who racked up 60 yards on this second carry to set up the eventual play-action TD pass from Jackson Weaver to Nickel. They converted their PAT to inch ahead, 7-6, at the 6:46 mark of the first quarter.
Buford then turned to their goal line corps to pull back ahead in the second quarter. Ervin punched in a 1-yard keeper early in the period, then Turner notched his second TD of the half from the Milton 1 six minutes later, albeit after three stops by the Eagles' defense. Buford failed to convert its second PAT on the drive.
The Wolves managed to hold Milton out of the end zone for the entire second quarter, but not off the scoreboard. Eagles kicker Jason Aussin nailed a 40-yard field goal as time expired, cutting Buford's lead to nine at the break.
Buford outgained Milton 326-272.
BUFORD 26, MILTON 23
Buford 6 13 7 0 — 26
Milton 7 3 0 13 — 23
Buford: Elijah Turner 65 run (Pass failed), 11:01
Milton: Jack Nickel 4 pass from Jackson Weaver (Jason Aussin kick), 6:46
Buford: Gabe Ervin Jr. 1 run (Hayden Olsen kick), 9:04
Buford: Turner 1 run (Kick failed), 3:36
Milton: Aussin 40 FG, 0:00
Buford: Justice Johnson 43 pass from Jarvis Evans Jr. (Olsen kick), 2:08
Milton: Nickel 39 pass from Devin Farrell (Pass failed), 6:57
Milton: Will Stax 17 pass from Farrell (Aussin kick), 2:54