ROSWELL — Wesleyan’s football team had an almost perfect game on offense.
The Wolves scored eight touchdowns on their first nine possessions in a 56-20 romp over previously undefeated Fellowship Christian in Friday’s Class A Private semifinals. Wesleyan will play for a state championship for the first time since 2010, and it did it the hard way after not receiving a bye to open the playoffs.
“I’m telling you right now, it was a gift that we got the ninth seed,” Wesleyan head coach Franklin Pridgen said. “We were in a rhythm, and it never broke. We had a character win in the first round, and we’ve been building on it ever since. I love the way things turned out.”
It was wire-to-wire domination, as Wesleyan’s defense made a huge statement right from the jump.
Cooper Blauser intercepted Eli Hildebrandt’s pass on the first snap of the game, giving the Wolves a short field.
The turnover set Wesleyan up at the Fellowship Christian 27, and it only took them four plays to find the end zone. J.C. French capped the drive off with a 2-yard quarterback sneak, the first of his three rushing touchdowns.
But as dangerous as French was on the ground with the two rushing scores, a lot of it was keeping the defense honest to set up bigger things in the passing game.
French launched one deep ball after another in the first half, taking advantage of a lack of safety help over the middle of the field. He completed two of them to Micah Smith for gains of 42 and 48 yards respectively, and drew a pair of pass interference calls on two more similar deep shots.
“I watched film all week and saw how they (the cornerbacks) were playing off a little,” Smith said. “Their corners like to play up a little bit, so I attacked their back foot and hit them outside.”
The first of those deep balls to Smith set the Wolves up in the red zone on their second possession, and this time it was Griffin Caldwell who slammed the ball into the end zone from two yards out.
Caldwell provided Wesleyan’s best offense of the night outside of French’s deep passing, rushing for 122 yards on 25 carries with two touchdowns.
Wesleyan succumbed to Fellowship Christian’s fast-paced ground attack once, allowing the Paladins to climb back into the game with an 80-yard drive late in the opening quarter. It took 12 plays to score, and all 12 plays came on the ground before Josh Cole made it into the end zone with a 6-yard run off left tackle.
But there was no panic from the Wolves. Caldwell and French went right back to work, taking turns delivering body blows to the Fellowship Christian defense. It took nine snaps and just under three minutes for the 14-point lead to be restored, as Caldwell’s second 2-yard TD run in as many possessions turned the heat right back up on Fellowship Christian’s offense.
This time, there was no answer.
Buford 29, Jones County 0
GRAY — The game plan was simple for the visiting team in Friday’s Class AAAAA state semifinal football game at Greyhound Field.
Play Buford football, and the Wolves stamped their trademark on a 29-0 shutout of Jones County to earn their first trip back to the state title game in three years, where a date with Warner Robins next Friday at Georgia State University Stadium awaits.
Buford piled up 299 yards on 41 carries from 12 different individual runners, led by 108 yards and two touchdowns by sophomore Victor Venn.
And while Jones County (12-2) finished with 200 yards of total offense, those numbers belied how dominant the Buford (13-1) defense was in allowing just 33 yards on the ground, most of which were amassed after the issue was decided, and harassing Greyhounds quarterback Hunter Costlow for six sacks, including 2 1/2 by Evan DiMaggio and two more by Carlton Holley.
“That’s what we preached all week long,” said Bryant Appling, who will take the Wolves back to finals for the 11th time in the last 13 years in his first season as Buford’s head coach. “We knew we had to play good defense against a good team that could put it in the air a lot. And then (offensively) we had to run the ball and keep control of the clock on a night like this.”
Stage 1 of that game plan got off to a good start.
Gabe Ervin Jr., back after missing last week’s quarterfinal win at Carrollton with an injury, gave Buford and early boost with a 50-yard burst on his first carry of the game.
The junior only added 10 more yards on seven carries, but his big chunk run was an important one, setting up a 43-yard Hayden Olsen field goal and a 3-0 Buford lead just 2:28 after the opening kickoff.
But momentum may have shifted towards the Wolves after Jones County looked like it would quickly answer with a score in its first possession of the game.
Three Costlow completions, all to Maleek Wooten, and a couple of well-timed runs moved the Greyhounds 79 yards in eight plays to as close as the Buford 1-yard line.
But on third and goal, the Wolves’ defensive line took advantage when Charles Gooden ran into his own lineman to post a 1-yard loss, and Holley sped into the backfield for a 13-yard loss on a third-down sack to turn the ball over on downs and keep Buford on top.
“That was pretty good, but we knew we to have a (fast) start,” Holley said. “So (the first several plays of the drive) were big wake-up call for us. That was a big momentum swing. After that (first) drive, (The Greyhounds’) body language changed. But at the same time, we knew from practice this week we had to be .. really strict with on what we had to do for this game.”
From that point, the Buford defense allowed just 16 yards and sacked Costlow three more times over the remainder of the half, while the offense began to heat up.
Lowndes 49, North Gwinnett 28
VALDOSTA — Somewhere around the 30-yard line, North Gwinnett head coach Bill Stewart grabbed a sobbing Jack McGill and gave him a hug.
Stewart tried to offer some encouraging words, anything to take the sting away from this one.
North Gwinnett dug itself in too deep of a hole to start and fell hard to Lowndes 49-28 in the semifinal round of the Class AAAAAAA state football playoffs Friday night at Martin Stadium.
The long trip to South Georgia wasn’t kind to the Bulldogs.
And it could have been worse.
Lowndes sophomore quarterback Jacurri Brown ran for two touchdowns and passed for three more, all in the first half, as the Vikings built a 42-14 lead at halftime. Brown accounted for 368 yards of total offense alone, including 200 yards rushing.
“It wasn’t enough,” Stewart said. “We tried to keep rolling. They have a very good football team and they got us.”
Lowndes broke North’s 12-game winning streak, handing the Bulldogs their first loss since the season-opening 17-6 setback to Colquitt County in the Corky Kell Classic. The Vikings (14-0) will be playing for their first state title since 2007 against Marietta next week in the state’s largest classification.
North Gwinnett scored a touchdown each in the third and fourth quarter to trim the deficit to 42-28. But after the Vikings stuffed the Bulldogs on a fake punt attempt at the North 40 midway through the final quarter, Lowndes scored on a back-breaking 32-yard run a couple of plays later to extend its lead to 49-28 with 6:43 left.
Marietta 42, Parkview 31
LILBURN — For three quarters, Parkview went toe-to-toe with pre-season state-champion favorite Marietta, outscoring the Blue Devils 28-21 in those three quarters.
However, it was the second quarter that doomed the home-standing Panthers as Marietta outscored them 21-3, including a touchdown with three seconds before halftime, and defeated Parkview 42-31 to advance to next week’s Class AAAAAAA state championship game.
“(Their offensive line) did a phenomenal job on the pass rush,” said Parkview head coach Eric Godfree. “That won them the game.
“This is hard. It just ends. We’re used to spending at least 30 hours a week with these players. It’s tough.”
The Blue Devils got five touchdown passes from Tennessee-commit Harrison Bailey, and had two 100-yard receivers in LSU commit Arik Gilbert and Michigan State commit Rickey White en route to the win.
“We have too many weapons on the field,” Gilbert said. “You can’t just focus on one of us.”
Parkview was led by Cody Brown on the ground with 197 yards on 25 carries, while Curtis had 92 yards on 11 carries. Jared Brown finished with 101 yards on five catches.
Harrison 38, Dacula 7
DACULA — A repeat of 2018 brought another painful finish for Dacula’s football team in the Class AAAAAA semifinals.
The top-ranked Falcons turned the ball over twice in the first quarter, fell behind two scores and never recovered in a 38-7 loss to second-ranked Harrison in a battle of unbeatens Friday night. The Hoyas (14-0) advance to face region rival Allatoona in Friday night’s state finals at Georgia State, while Dacula ends the season with a 13-1 record — a school-record for wins in a season.
It marked the second straight season the Falcons had a huge quarterfinal victory — last week they routed two-time defending state champion Lee County 56-21 — only to lose the next week in the Final Four.
Kaleb Edwards rushed 10 times for 121 yards for Dacula, which finished with three turnovers. Edwards had just two carries for four yards in the second half.
“We told (the players) and they knew from last year, the margin for error when you get to this point is so small,” Dacula head coach Clint Jenkins said. “We did some things to ourselves early that were self-inflicted. You can’t do that against a good football team. They built up. They had the momentum. When you get a football team as good as theirs, you can’t spot them anything. And we did. But I’m proud of our guys. What we accomplished this year was great.”
After falling behind 17-7 at halftime, Dacula couldn’t get its defense off the field in the second half. Harrison’s ball-control offense limited the Falcons to three second-half possessions — the last starting with 3:03 left and the game already out of hand at 38-7.
Cedar Grove 28, GAC 18
DECATUR — Greater Atlanta Christian had a trip to the state finals on a tee.
Down three points midway through the fourth quarter, Joseph Rose fell on a Cedar Grove fumble inside the Saints 10-yard line.
Even if the Spartans couldn’t get in to the end zone, a field goal would tie it.
On third-and-goal from the 7, senior quarterback Jackson Hardy scrambled out of the pocket.
Cedar Grove’s Isaiah Ratcliff read the route for a back-breaking interception.
The Saints return to the Class AAA championship game for the third time in four years with a 28-18 victory at Buck Godfrey Stadium in Decatur.
“We had opportunities,” head coach Tim Hardy said. “Ultimately, I say it all the time, football is a fair game and they earned the victory. More than anything, I’m just really proud of the way our guys competed — the toughness, the energy, the purpose with which they competed. Our guys showed a lot.
“To have a three-point game to the last 30 seconds is good. We didn’t come here to play close. We came here to win. So the disappointment is very real. But I’m tremendously proud of the preparation, the execution and the toughness.”
GAC trailed 14-3 at the half. The Spartans cut the deficit to 21-18 in the third quarter.
A 15-play drive started the rally. Turning to Tyler Bride after Montae Bailey was injured in the first half, the senior carried the ball six times in the series. Alternating with Bride’s grinding runs were three huge third-down conversion passes from Jackson Hardy to Thomas Lowman, Christian Thomas and Zach Mixon. The one to Mixon, who was under blanket coverage, went for 30 yards.
Bride barreled the final two yards for the score. Hardy lobbed a pass to Choe Bryant-Strother in the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion and hauled GAC to with 14-11 at 2:47.
The Saints answered with quarterback Austin Smith capping a six-play, 60-yard drive on a short run. The highlight was a 41-yard circus catch by Coreyon Cone. The senior popped the ball up with one hand and managed to pull it in at the sideline.
Cedar Grove kicked off — and Mixon thundered 95 yards for the touchdown on the return.
Mixon was nearly caught at the Saints 30, but high stepped away from the pursuit and danced into the end zone with 14 seconds left in the third quarter.
The margin remained 21-18 until Cedar Grove sealed the win with 42 seconds remaining. Sophomore running back Rashod Dubinion went 26 yards for his second touchdown of the game.