This is as close to a heavyweight battle as you’ll ever see on the high school football field.
Tonight at Tom Riden Stadium, third-ranked Buford (12-1), which has won 26 straight home playoff games, hosts undefeated and top-ranked Woodward Academy (13-0) in the Class AAAA semifinal in Buford. The winner will face the Bainbridge/Cartersville winner for the Class AAAA state title at 4:30 p.m. Dec. 12 in Atlanta.
The War Eagles have a tremendous running game, headed by University of Georgia pledge Elijah Holyfield. He’ll be pitted against Buford’s ferocious defense, which has allowed just 51 yards on the ground per game in 2015.
Buford’s defense is hoping it will have the upper hand as it looks to win its fourth consecutive state championship. The Wolves, who have allowed just 126 yards per game this season, knows stopping Holyfield, the son of five-time heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, will be paramount.
“Obviously, when you hear ‘Woodward,’ the first thing that comes to mind is Elijah Holyfield,” said Buford senior defensive tackle Shug Frazier. “He’s a dynamic back. He can hit holes, he can bounce outside and he has great speed.”
Holyfield missed five games this season due to injury, but has been strong since, averaging almost 8 yards a carry.
Buford’s defense will also have to contend with a Woodward Academy passing game, which is helmed by junior quarterback Ryan Groover (2,570 passing yards, 65-percent completion percentage). Wide receiver Joshua Johnson is the War Eagles’ top receiver with 49 catches for 1,082 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“What we haven’t seen during these playoffs is a team that can throw the ball like they can,” said Buford linebacker Jake Simpson.
“Their quarterback can really throw it, but their receivers do a good job of catching the ball short and expanding the play,” said running back/defensive back Xavier Gantt. “They can catch a 5-yard hitch and turn it into a 70-yard gain.”
If the War Eagles are going to be productive, it looks like that’s going to have to come through the air.
“We like to run the ball, first and foremost, then we like to pass efficiently,” Hunt said. “Everything goes through Elijah on our offense. He makes everybody better.”
Woodward Academy has lost five consecutive road playoff games, including a first-round game at Buford in 2013. War Eagles coach John Hunt said he will still try to keep his team’s balance and run the football.
Why wouldn’t the War Eagles rely on their rock in the backfield?
In last week’s 42-14 victory over Marist, Holyfield, who started his high school career at Riverside Military Academy, rushed for 249 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries.
With a hot hand at quarterback, a high commodity talent in the backfield and strong receivers, the Wolves will have to change up their defensive game plan from the last couple of weeks.
“Their tight end is dangerous, all of their receivers are dangerous, so just covering them and making sure we can bottle up their running back and keep the quarterback contained will be key,” said Gantt.
While Buford has posted seven shutouts this season and only allowed 25 points since Week 3, including a special teams touchdown last week, the Wolves’ defense against the Woodward offense might not be the only story to the game.
The opposite may also come into play.
Woodward Academy has allowed 145 points in 13 games this season, with six of those games giving up just a touchdown and one a shutout.
The War Eagles will rotate four linebackers that have combined this season for 36 tackles for loss and 335 total tackles.
One linebacker alone, sophomore KJ Philips, has 10 tackles for loss and 136 total tackles.
We’ve been playing pretty solid defense all year,” Hunt said. “That’s led by our linebacking core. Max Richardson (7 tackles for loss, 72 total tackles) was our leading tackler last year and was all-region. KJ Philips is having his finest year as a sophomore. We’ve got him a couple more years and we’re very thankful for that.”
Still, a strong defense and a well-balanced offense isn’t just going to surprise and defeat Buford, Hunt knows that.
“Up front, you have to give your nod to the front seven of Buford,” Hunt said. “The secondary is no slouch either. I think we just have the ability to be balanced and hopefully that’ll give us a chance.
“We’ve got to have some good fortune,” he continued. “Any team that gets this far has had to get some good fortune. Buford, over the last few years has won everything and made their own fortune. We haven’t always played well (this season), but we’ve been able to win and that’s been the most important thing.”
When it comes to sports, especially in a playoff or tournament situation, there are cliché sayings that just come rolling off the tongue of fans, coaches and players.
For Buford, a lot of those sayings like “survive and advance,” “they’re peaking at the right time,” “they have to remember what got them here,” “they’ve been here before” and “this team has a chance to do something special” ring true and will be evident tonight against Woodward.
SURVIVE AND ADVANCE: Starting in the first round, every team that makes the postseason knows there may not be a next week unless they handle their business.
Buford has done just that, shutting out Fayette County and Worth County and giving up 7 points to Thomson.
The last time the Wolves were in the state playoffs and lost was the Class AA Championship game in 2011.
THEY’RE PEAKING AT THE RIGHT TIME: Last week, prior to a 49-7 second-round win over Thomson, Caleb Auer said Buford had “just started playing together.”
For opponents standing in Buford’s way, that’s a scary thought.
“It’s a pretty daunting task when you watch (Buford) on tape. They’re every bit as good as they look,” Hunt said. “They’re typical Buford: strong in every part of the game. Of Buford teams, it’s like they’re carbon copies.”
THEY HAVE TO REMEMBER WHAT GOT THEM HERE: The Wolves have been nothing short of dominant this season on both sides of the ball.
Buford is averaging just shy of 46 points per game, but their defense has been merciless toward its opponents. If they expect to win tonight, they’ll have to remember what got them to the semifinals.
“It’s really simple, honestly, we just have to be Buford,” Gantt said. “All the coaches always say that if we’ll just play Buford football for 48 minutes, no one can beat us.”
THEY’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE: The Wolves have made the state semifinals every year since 2001, with the exception of 2005 and 2006. They’re no stranger to big games and having the No. 1 team in the state in your house for a semifinal matchup is a big game.
THIS TEAM HAS A CHANCE TO DO SOMETHING SPECIAL: Buford has won the last three state championships, but having the chance at a fourth consecutive title, though impressive, isn’t the “something special.”
If the Wolves are able to get past the War Eagles and defeat the winner between No. 2 Cartersville and No. 5 Bainbridge, then Buford will have won 11 state championships in the last 15 years. The only seasons they wouldn’t have picked up hardware would be 2004-06 and 2011.