Wolves 35, Bulldogs 14
Difference maker: Evyn Cooper. Whenever the Wolves were looking for a first down or a big rush, up stepped Cooper. The speedy running back had a career day in a gritty win at home.
Stat that matters: 28 rushing yards. After riding through the regular season on its rushing prowess, Mary Persons struggled to find any momentum and would finish the first half with just 28 rushing yards.
Turning point: David Curry picked off Johnston with 40 seconds left in the first half before running it back to midfield. That play set up Cooper’s big dash and Nauta’s decisive score.
Who’s next: Buford advances to take on Marist, which defeated Griffin on Friday night. Mary Person’ season is over.
BUFORD — For Evyn Cooper, it was all about being the next man up.
After a strong week in practice, the senior running back had the performance of his career as a stand-in for starter Xavier Gantt, rushing for a team-high 141 yards to push Buford to a 35-14 victory over Mary Persons (9-3) in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs.
The top-ranked and undefeated Wolves (12-0) face Marist in the quarterfinals next week.
Cooper made every one of his 15 carries count as he took over for Gantt, who was sidelined with a hamstring injury earlier this week. Cooper’s bursting 60-yard dash in the second quarter down the near sideline set up an Isaac Nauta touchdown to go into halftime up 28-7 following two scores from Joshua Thomas and one from Martin Mangram.
Mary Persons quarterback Jake Johnston (8-of-14, 146 yards) threw for a touchdown near the end of each half, but the Bulldogs could never claw their way back into a game that the Wolves’ run defense dominated from the start.
The 14 points allowed are the most against Buford this season since its 27-20 win over Class AAAAAA power McEachern on Sept. 5.
“I thought I’d play a lot, I did a lot of work this practice week and the coaches said, ‘It’s time for you to go, you’ve got what it takes,’” Cooper said after the game. “We’re just looking forward to next week, and it’s one game at a time.”
The Wolves kicked off the night in style when David Curry’s diving 17-yard reception got Buford within the Bulldogs’ 25 with less than two minutes gone in the opening quarter. Two plays later, Thomas used every inch of his 6-foot-1 frame to break the plane from 11 yards out to score.
Mary Persons struggled with its run offense all night, despite coming into Friday’s matchup with 17 touchdowns from senior Dee High.
But Buford’s swarming defense disrupted Mary Persons’ flow, pushing running backs Keri Brown (13 carries for 29 yards) and John Perkins (10 carries for 16 yards) to the sidelines. Buford held the Bulldogs to just seven rushing yards in the first quarter.
“That’s who they are, what they’re good at,” said Wolves head coach Jess Simpson. “They want to run the football and then go for the pass, but for the most part, we did pretty well at containing them.”
A pair of 7-yard runs by Thomas put Buford back in scoring contention on the very next drive before the senior punched it home from 2 yards out.
And it seemed as if Mary Persons could muster no answer when Johnston was sacked well behind the line of scrimmage with just over nine minutes left in the half. But Johnston managed to find receiver Malik Bledsoe (2 receptions, 58 yards) on fourth-and-8. He caught the ball on the Buford 20 before running into the end zone for the Bulldogs’ lone first half touchdown.
Buford had to wait just four minutes to answer in kind. Will Bazemore’s smart reaction to a pooch kick gave the Wolves great field position on the Mary Persons 46 before Luke Humphrey’s 14-yard pass to Aaron Auer put the home team on the Bulldogs’ 15.
Soon afterward, Mangram (7 carries for 49 yards) was scrambling in to score from 2 yards away to restore the 14-point lead.
“I just love how hard our kids played, how they competed,” Simpson said. “At this time of year, there’s no time for kind of being ready, or hoping you’re ready. We locked in the best week of practice we’ve had, and as a coach, it’s great to be able to practice on Thanksgiving.”
Curry sent Buford fans into raptures when he picked off Johnston on the next Mary Persons drive with 40 seconds left in the half.
Cooper broke free for a huge 60-yard gain down the near sideline to set up Isaac Nauta’s 21-yard grab deep in the middle of the Wolves’ end zone for a 28-7 halftime lead. A drive that started on Buford’s own 49 ended two plays later in celebration.
“Momentum played a huge part for us,” Cooper said, with a broad smile on his face. “We had a big momentum swing when we first came out. They had a couple big plays, but we knew we’d come out on top.”
Buford’s defense stopped the next four Mary Persons possessions to close out the convincing win. Jordan Perlotte’s 3-yard dive gave Buford a 35-7 lead early in the third quarter before Nauta, Curry and Shug Frazier combined for three consecutive tackles for loss on a Bulldog drive that began at their own 11.
Mary Persons was forced to punt on six of its nine drives.
Johnston found Zach Harvey (2 receptions, 46 yards) in the slot with 2:32 remaining for a 41-yard touchdown against Buford’s second-string defense, but the damage had been done long before.
Buford’s focus turns to Marist (11-1), who defeated Region 4-AAA champion Griffin 31-21 Friday night. Simpson said he hopes for Gantt to be healthy for next week’s test.
If not, the Wolves have a ready made replacement in Cooper.
“He’s been working so hard all year, so I know he’ll be back,” Cooper said. “He’s a real hard worker, so even if he had a broken bone, he’d try to play.”