ATHENS — Clarke Central intercepted a pass in the end zone with nine seconds left, sealing a huge upset over top-ranked Buford and claiming the Region 8-AAAAA title.
Buford's first loss of the season denied it a No. 1 seed in the state playoffs, but it was even more monumental given the history of it.
The Wolves saw a 47-game winning streak in region competition end — their last loss to a region foe was a forfeit loss Oct. 5, 2012 loss to West Hall (a game it won 61-0). Buford's last loss on the field in a region game was Sept. 11, 2009 — a 28-21 loss to Lovett.
"You've got to answer the call," first-year Buford head coach Bryant Appling said. "I told the seniors you've got one more guaranteed home game and then after that there's no guarantees. You're liable to go on the road the rest of the way and you have to make a decision on how you come back after this loss."
Jarvis Evans Jr. led his team down the field in an attempt to steal a victory. Facing a third-and-long from the Gladiators' 15-yard line, he sent a pass into heavy traffic in the end zone that was tipped and intercepted with nine seconds left.
That play sealed an epic upset by Clarke Central (7-3, 4-1 region), which heads to the playoffs as the region's top seed. Buford (9-1, 4-1 region) now must regroup for next Friday's first-round game at home.
A extremely slow start had Buford playing catch-up all night.
Buford ran the ball well, but failed to find consistency on offense with a mostly one-dimensional attack. Leading rusher Gabe Ervin Jr. had 19 carries for 144 yards and two touchdowns, while Elijah Turner had 13 carries for 125 yards and a TD.
The troubles for the Wolves' defense started on the very first play of the game when Clarke Central quarterback Isaac Ward connected with A.J. Jewell for an 80-yard TD pass.
"We gave up too many plays early," Appling said. "They caught a couple of ones over the top of us, but we changed things and played base after that and had a better chance."
Ward torched the Wolves' defense, going 11-for-16 with 181 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone and giving the Gladiators a 21-14 lead going into halftime.
Buford figured things out in the second half and slowed down the Gladiator offense in the air, holding the hosts to only 10 points. A late rushing TD with 4:44 left to play gave Clarke Central a 31-21 lead and seemed to put the game out of reach.
A quarterback change in the second half for Buford sparked its offense when it put in Evans.
Down 10 with 3:44 left, Buford got a 54-yard TD pass from Evans to Jake Pope to cut the lead to 3.
Buford then held Clarke Central to a three-and-out, getting the ball back with right over 2 minutes left to play, but couldn't pull off the game-winning score.
CLARKE CENTRAL 31, BUFORD 28
Buford 7 7 0 14 - 28
Clarke 21 0 3 7 - 31
CLARKE CENTRAL: A.J. Jewell 80 pass from Isaac Ward (Christian Bryan kick) 11:47
CLARKE CENTRAL: Nono Mack 43 pass from Ward (Bryan kick) 9:45
BUFORD: Gabe Ervin Jr. 43 run (Hayden Olsen kick) 7:06
CLARKE CENTRAL: Mack 2 pass from Ward (Bryan kick) :12
BUFORD: Elijah Turner 84 run (Olsen kick) 4:53
CLARK CENTRAL: Bryan 20 FG, 8:51
BUFORD: Ervin 4 run (Olsen kick) 9:21
CLARKE CENTRAL: O'Brien Barnett 2 run (Bryan kick) 4:44
BUFORD: Jake Pope 54 pass from Jarvis Evans Jr. (Olsen kick) 3:44