CARROLLTON — Playing without his two top running backs and leading tackler from the start of his team’s Class AAAAA state quarterfinal football game against Carrollton and then losing his starting quarterback late in the third quarter, Buford coach Bryant Appling knew he would have to pull out all the stops.
A gutsy performance by third-string running back Victor Venn and two equally gutsy play calls by Appling and his staff were the keys as the No. 2 Wolves overcame the top-ranked Trojans 24-21 Friday night before a standing room only crowd of more than 9,000 at Grisham Stadium.
“Just the toughness and the grit and the hard work that we’ve been filling these guys with since January,” first-year Buford head coach Bryant Appling said after his Wolves (12-1) earned a date on the road at Jones County in next week’s state semifinals.
“They knew it was always the next man up mentality. If somebody gets hurt, the next guy’s getting just as many reps in practice and just as many reps during the season. If the situation comes up, they can step up and play big.”
Venn ran for a game-high 235 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries, and Hayden Olsen’s 28-yard field goal as time expired provided the winning margin.
But it was a play the senior kicker made about three minutes earlier that may have been even bigger.
With the game tied at 21-all and Buford facing fourth-and-6 at its own 36-yard line, Appling decided to game and called for a fake punt.
“It’s something we’ve been working on all year long,” Appling said. “We’ve been working on a couple of different fake (punt) situations, and … I give it up to Coach Dash (defensive line coach Drew Dasher) on that fake. He was telling me all game long, ‘It’s there, it’s there, it’s there.’ We almost called it one time earlier when it was fourth-and-eight. I’m glad we held it.”
It was up to Olsen, who had never thrown a pass in a competitive game before, to execute it, and he delivered a strike to Justice Johnson for a 7-yard gain and a Buford first down at the Wolves’ 43 to keep the drive alive.
“We were practicing (that play) all week,” Olsen said. “It was kind of a new play that we drew up at the beginning of the week. And I was just happy to be in the right moment and the right time to execute it.”
Another clutch completion — this time, a 22-yard strike from back-up quarterback Ashton Daniels to Nate Norys on third and 6 extended the drive again and brought the Wolves down to the Carrollton (12-1) 31 with just 1:56 left on the clock.
Then facing third and 13 back at the 34 with time winding down, Venn cut to his left behind a block and found enough open space for a 23-yard gain down to the Trojans’ 11. It was Venn’s third run of 23 yards or more on the night.
“I was really surprised,” Venn said. “I thought (Carrollton was) going to crack down and try to load the box. So I was just happy to see enough room, and I just had to do my thing and do whatever I could do to get my team into good field position.”
Appling let the clock run down to 2.5 seconds before calling his team’s final timeout, which left the game on the foot of Hayden, who said any jitters he may have had were gone, thanks to the earlier fake punt.
“It kind of got some of the nerves out, and I kind of built up more adrenaline,” Hayden said of the fake punt. “(The kick) was just going back to my fundamentals. We practice those situations all the time. The coaches, they ice me, they prepare me as much as possible.”
Olsen showed no nerves as he stepped forward and booted the ball true through the uprights as time expired for the game-winner.
Dacula 56, Lee County 21
LEESBURG — On the 25-yard line on the Dacula High School side of the field, they surrounded head coach Clint Jenkins and began to celebrate.
And why not?
This one felt good for the top-ranked Falcons.
Dacula used a bruising ground game to gut two-time defending Class AAAAAA state champion Lee County.
Then its defense cut down the Trojans’ high-octane offense en route to a 56-21 victory Friday night in the quarterfinal round of the AAAAAA state football playoffs.
The Falcons (13-0) celebrated as if they had won the state championship.
They could be doing just that if they keep playing like they did Friday night.
“Give credit to our offense,” Jenkins said. “Those guys kept coming back again and again. Then we knew we had to slow them down. Against Lee County, that’s not an easy thing to do.”
Dacula ended Lee County’s 12-game postseason winning streak dating back to the 2017 season.
The Falcons will be in the semifinals for the second straight season and they will host Harrison, a winner over Houston County on Friday.
But that will have to wait. They want to enjoy this one for a little while.
Lee County (11-2) answered Dacula’s first-half scores and the game was tied at 14 until the Falcons took the lead for good on a 74-yard scamper from Kaleb Edwards. Dacula took a 28-14 lead into halftime.
Quarterback Jarrett Jenkins said he knew they had to keep their momentum going.
“We knew we couldn’t let up,” he said. “We had to keep our foot on the gas.”
On the Falcons’ opening possession of the third quarter, Edwards gashed the Lee County defensive front and rambled 61 yards for a score to make it 35-14 at the 10:52 mark.
Then after a defensive stop, Jenkins hit Christopher Scott on a 31-yard touchdown pass at the 8:35 mark as the Falcons took a commanding 42-14 advantage.
Parkview 35, Archer 17
LILBURN — Running backs Cody Brown and Tyler Curtis led the way for Parkview on Friday night as the Panthers tamed the Archer Tigers 35-17.
Much like the previous week, all touchdowns scored by the Panthers were on the ground.
“The offensive line was amazing tonight,” Brown said. “I could have walked through the holes they gave me and scored. The holes they made ... it was a running back’s dream.”
It was a dream-like performance for Brown, who finished with 162 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries. Curtis had 154 yards and two touchdowns of his own on 11 touches.
The Parkview defense was phenomenal throughout the game, limiting the Tigers to 147 rushing yards and only 229 yards through the air.
The Panthers sacked Archer quarterback Carter Peevy seven times and picked him off twice. Parkview forced four turnovers.
“Our defense played lights-out,” Parkview head coach Eric Godfree said. “We knew (that) their quarterback was really good with his feet and I feel like our defense did a good job of taking care of that challenge this week.”
North Gwinnett 32, McEachern 13
POWDER SPRINGS — When asked if his football team is playing its best football of the season right now, North Gwinnett running back Devin Crosby gave the answer every player hopes they can give when the season starts in August.
“Absolutely,” he said with a huge smile. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Crosby finished with 177 yards and three touchdowns as the Bulldogs dominated previously undefeated McEachern 32-13. Crosby was one of three Bulldogs who had a huge day on offense, as quarterback J.R. Martin finished with 255 total yards and wide receiver Josh Downs had six receptions for 137 yards and another score.
“It’s a three-headed monster,” North head coach Bill Stewart said. “It gives teams a lot of stuff to deal with. That was a great defense we were playing. We put up a lot of points, and you have to do that in the playoffs.”
The Bulldogs had to go into one of the toughest atmospheres in the state for their first road game in over a month, but they assumed control of the contest right from the start.
It only took 118 seconds of football for the visitors to grab the lead, as a six-play opening drive resulted in a touchdown. The score came from Crosby, the first piece of his hat trick. Martin hit Downs for a gain of 46 on the first third down of the game, a play that moved North inside the red zone. Crosby finished off the drive with a powerful run up the middle just three plays later to make it 7-0 North, and that set the tone for what was to come.
“That’s the way to start a game,” Stewart said. “The way we did it really set the tone with Devin running the ball. Our offense is gelling, and they were able to go down there and punch it in.”
Lowndes 28, Grayson 20
VALDOSTA — One more yard and a little magic.
That’s all the Grayson Rams needed to potentially extend their football season.
Trailing the Lowndes Vikings 28-20, the Rams look poised to even the score. Quarterback C.J. Dixon and Phil Mafah helped march the team down the field.
Mafah opened the drive with two runs for 13 yards before Dixon fired to junior Jaden Smith for nine more — enough for a second first down. On the next play, Dixon hit Smith again, but this time Smith made a highlight reel grab over the Lowndes defense to move the chains.
Dixon found Mafah on a pass for 31 yards, moving the Rams down into the red zone to set up first-and-goal from the nine-yard line.
Despite being well into scoring range, the Rams struggled — Dixon fired a pass incomplete and senior running back Lafayette Gurvin got nowhere on a called run.
On third-and-goal, Gurvin got the call again and this time broke out for an eight-yard burst to put the Rams on the Lowndes 1-yard line with 52.5 seconds left.
Needing to score and convert on a two-point conversion, the Rams lined up to try to punch the ball in. Gurvin got the ball on a direct snap and pushed toward the goal line, but Lowndes’ Thomas Davis and a host of Vikings teamed up to stop Gurvin shy of the goal line.
The Vikings (13-0) got the ball following the turnover on downs and ran out the clock, holding off the Rams (11-2) 28-20 on Friday night in the Class AAAAAAA quarterfinals.
“We had a little push, but we had a little too much penetration right there,” Grayson coach Adam Carter said of the final play. “It was a judgment call there on when they blow (the whistle). Obviously we couldn’t see from our angle. I thought we had a good enough push but we didn’t.
“That’s a good ball team, man, a good defense and to be right there within one foot is a tough pill to swallow, but our kids kept fighting.”
Marietta 42, Mill Creek 10
MARIETTA — Marietta’s football roster doesn’t lack for high-level recruits, including four headed to Southeastern Conference schools.
However, one of the Blue Devils’ more underrated college prospects caused Mill Creek the most issues Friday night in the Class AAAAAAA quarterfinals.
Running back Kimani Vidal buried the visiting Hawks with a huge first half and eighth-ranked Mill Creek never recovered, falling 42-10 to No. 6 Marietta at Northcutt Stadium. Vidal, a stout 5-foot-7, 205 pounds, rushed nine times for 235 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone as his team built a 28-3 edge after two quarters. He finished with 16 carries for 260 yards.
It was a tough ending for Mill Creek (10-3), which still reached the 10-win mark for just the third time in school history — under a first-year head coach, Josh Lovelady.
“In the final eight, they’re all good,” Lovelady said. “Our matchups were a little tough and we didn’t help out, they made some big plays on us and tip your hat to them, they executed well. We ended up not being sound in a few places in lining up and being gap sound, but they were better than us tonight. I’m proud of our kids. We had a great season. We played the Mill Creek way. We just didn’t make enough plays tonight.”
The two teams played a mostly even first quarter before things went sideways for the Hawks. Vidal broke off a 49-yard run on the game’s first possession, setting up a 9-yard TD pass from Tennessee commitment Harrison Bailey to Taji Johnson. Bailey finished the night 18 of 24 passing for 193 yards and three TDs.
Chancellor Lee-Parker’s 51-yard run put Mill Creek in scoring position, but the Hawks had to settle for Brock Pellegrino’s 24-yard field goal.
Marietta (11-2) went ahead 14-3 when Mill Creek’s defense couldn’t get off the field when it forced the hosts behind the chains. The Blue Devils wiggled out of a second-and-24 and a second-and-25 at different points on the drive, converting a fourth-and-13 in the latter situation. Vidal ended that march with a 4-yard TD run.
Mill Creek’s offense struggled throughout the half and managed only 70 yards — 51 on Lee-Parker’s run and 19 yards on its 24 other plays.
GAC 17, Hart County 16
NORCROSS — After not scoring since shortly before halftime and watching a 10-point lead turn into a 6-point deficit, Greater Atlanta Christian had 8 minutes, 33 seconds left to find an answer on offense or its season would be finished.
That answer came on quarterback Jackson Hardy’s arm and some crucial catches by his receiving corps.
Zac Mixon made the catch that made the difference on the scoreboard, a reception in the end zone in traffic on third and goal from the 11. Tyler Curland hit the extra point for a 17-16 lead with 5:04 remaining, and GAC’s defense made two crucial stops late to preserve a playoff win against Hart County in the Class AAA quarterfinals.
The Spartans (12-1) now play at Cedar Grove in next Friday’s semifinals.
“I knew Jackson had faith in me,” Mixon said. “I ran a post, got inside (of the defender). Right when he threw it, I knew it was going to be a touchdown.”
Mixon (two catches, 33 yards, TD) said the team’s chemistry is what kept them fighting despite the Bulldogs turning a deficit into a lead going into the final quarter.
“We’re all a tight-knit family,” he said. “We’re always fighting for each other. That’s what a lot of teams don’t have, but we’re all close together. It’s a tight bond, and that’s what kept us in the game and kept us pushing.”
GAC coach Tim Hardy praised how his team kept battling and represented the program with a comeback win against a Hart County team that knocked off previously unbeaten Region 2-AAA champion Pierce County last week in a tight matchup.
“Without a doubt, our defense was outstanding all night,” Hardy said. “We gave up a big run here and there, and they had a couple of good drives. But we made critical downs and critical plays in situational football and … held them to those field goals.”
Wesleyan 42, Savannah Christian 16
PEACHTREE CORNERS — Wesleyan was on its own 40, facing fourth-and-five on the opening drive of the second half.
Head coach Franklin Pridgen got gutsy and faked the punt.
Senior lineman Josh Aspinwall barreled though the line and dashed 46 yards on a game-changing call.
The Wolves scored on the next play, a 14-yard run by Griffin Caldwell, and broke away from Savannah Christian. The sophomore back rushed for three more touchdowns in the second half and Wesleyan rolled into the Class A Private semifinals with a 42-16 victory at home Friday.
“To a guard,” Pridgen said of the play call. “And I’d do it again. I’ve been doing this long enough that I know turnovers, fake punts, big plays can be turning points. You couple that with just the right point in the game and you can almost feel, it’s almost palpable, the energy starts to tip.
“Josh Aspinwall has been wanted to run it forever. He said to me, ‘If you’ll call it, I’ll make it work.’”
Caldwell rushed for nearly 200 yards and four second-half touchdowns on 25 carries. Micah Smith made a number of exceptional receptions, with huge yards after the catch in the first half.
“It was a very, very strong statement in the running game and that always starts with (the offensive line),” Pridgen said.
Up next is a road trip to unbeaten Fellowship Christian, which held off a feisty Hebron Christian.
Wesleyan got off to a strong start on both sides of the ball, but mistakes left the Wolves with a scant 14-10 lead at halftime.
Then they dominated the second half, sparked by the success of the fake punt.
Fellowship Christian 35, Hebron Christian 28
ROSWELL — There were dueling noisemakers Friday night at Bob Lord Field with cowbells clanging on one side and plastic shakers on the other as the Hebron Christian Lions and Fellowship Christian Paladins met for the first time ever in the third round of the state playoffs.
In a seesaw contest, Fellowship Christian hung on for a 35-28 win and earned the right host Wesleyan next Friday in the Class A Private semifinals.
“How does it feel hosting the semifinal right here next week?” Paladins head coach Al Morrell said to his victorious players after the game. “You guys did it, it went back and forth. Hats off to you players, you never quit, you kept fighting and you stopped them when you had to.”
Fifth-seeded Fellowship Christian improved to 12-0. No. 12 seed Hebron ended its year at 8-5.
In the third quarter, Colten Gauthier put Hebron on his back, as he completed a 12-yard pass to Karim Muhammad for the first down, was then brought down after a gain of 2, and tossed a 25-yard pass to a crossing Alex Pawson. Gauthier then scrambled for 3 on the right side.
On second-and-7 from the 27-yard line, Winston Gassant stumbled ahead for 3. Gassant then punished the defense, bowling forward for 11 tough yards. On second-and-10, Gauthier tossed a perfect pass to junior receiver Justin Peavy, who broke the tackle and spun into the end zone for the 14-yard touchdown with 4:01 left in the third quarter.
The third quarter ended with Fellowship leading Hebron 21-14 and the Lions could never quite bridge that gap.