ATLANTA — Buford coaches and players knew Friday’s Class AAAAA football state championship game against Rome would be a physical, defensive struggle.
They ended up on the wrong side of it.
No. 5 Rome stifled No. 2 Buford’s offense for a 16-7 win in the Georgia Dome, Buford’s second consecutive title game appearance that has resulted in a loss. Buford (13-2) managed just 112 yards in its 10th straight trip to a state championship game, and only two of its 51 plays gained more than 10 yards.
Rome (13-2), meanwhile, won its first state championship in any sport since East and West Rome merged in 1992.
Buford’s 1,000-yard rushers Anthony Grant and Christian Turner combined for 22 rushes and just 3.1 yards a carry, bottled up by a Rome defense that had surrendered 11.4 points per game.
“It didn’t matter who you were in that classification — running the ball and moving it on them, especially here in the last eight weeks, nobody has really done that,” Buford coach Jess Simpson said. “People that have scored on them scored early in the year with long pass plays or in the kicking game. You just didn’t see people running on them this year.”
Two days before the game, Simpson said he thought it would come down to four or five big plays.
Buford made the first one.
Grant returned the opening kickoff 95 yards before being caught at the goal line. His explosive play set up senior fullback/linebacker TD Roof’s 1-yard touchdown plunge on the following play, which ended up being Buford’s only points of the evening.
“My teammates had good blocks,” Grant said. “I saw the seam, and I just hit it.”
The game then turned into the low-scoring affair many expected it to be. Rome’s high-flying offense, which entered Friday averaging 45 points per game, struggled to find any rhythm against Buford’s aggressive defense early in the game.
Rome gained just 6 yards on 10 first-quarter plays, producing a trio of three-and-outs before sophomore quarterback Knox Kadum threw an interception to end the opening period.
The first of senior defensive back Chee Anyanwu’s two interceptions came right after Buford’s lone turnover. Mic Roof fumbled while getting sacked on third-and-6, and junior linebacker KJ Hicks pounced on the loose ball.
“Their front four is obviously extremely talented,” Simpson said. “They have a lot of Division I prospects. A lot of length, a lot of strength, a lot of speed.”
Buford continued to toil on offense, while Rome finally figured out its own.
Kadum faced heavy pressure off the edge on a second-and-4, but the sophomore spun around and raced down the sideline for a 13-yard gain. That scramble drill was something Buford would continue to see — and struggle to contain — as the game wore on.
Rome’s drive eventually ended with junior kicker Emanual Gonzalez’s 24-yard field goal. But the 15-play, 79-yard possession was the longest of the game and gave Rome momentum heading into halftime.
But the real shift came on the third play after halftime.
Buford’s defense was still in control and had forced a third-and-10 on Rome’s first possession of the second half. But Kadum darted right up the middle for a 41-yard gain.
“We had them third and 10 to start the third quarter, and he popped a little zone play on us when we had some pressure called,” Simpson said. “We made a bad call, they made a great call, so credit to them.”
Kadum capped the drive with a 28-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-2, keeping a zone-read to put Rome ahead 10-7.
Buford got inside Rome’s 40-yard line on its next two drives but was forced to punt both times.
“We needed to find one drive and put one away,” Simpson said. “We could have put the pressure on them.”
Both teams exchanged punts on the next six drives as two of the state’s top defenses took over the game. But when Rome pinned Buford at its 1-yard line with 4:31 left to play, it became clear Buford was running out of chances.
Buford picked up a first down before the game again boiled down to the line of scrimmage. And again, Rome stood tall on both third-and-1 and fourth-and-inches to force a turnover on downs.
“They’re a good football team,” Grant said. “They played better than us.”
Buford used its three remaining timeouts to force a fourth-and-2 with 80 seconds to play, but Rome elected to go for it and put the game away. Kadum did just that, again calling his own number on the zone-read for the game-winning, 18-yard touchdown. Gonzalez missed the extra point to make it 16-7.
“We knew the quarterback was going to run the ball,” Simpson said. “Really outside of a couple of plays, we did a good job. All his big plays were scrambles. Obviously, the quarterback draw stuff, we’re in the right call and don’t execute it.”
Kadum completed 6 of 20 passes for 82 yards but finished with eight rushes for 127 yards. Buford quarterback Mic Roof completed 8 of 19 passes for 51 yards and was sacked four times.
Buford’s first season in AAAAA ended with a hard-nosed defensive struggle, just like it expected. That it came against a Rome team that was making its first state championship game appearance made little difference to Simpson.
“That can be so overrated,” Simpson said. “At the end of the day, it’s football. It’s blocking, tackling, technique and toughness. That was two well-coached, disciplined, hard-playing football teams with very similar styles of play.”