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Buford marches to semifinal, tops Marist 30-6
Wolves reach semifinals for 8th straight year, will face Cartersville
Buford running back Martin Mangram (23) runs the ball downfield Friday while teammate Jordan Perlotte (41) blocks during the first half of Friday's Class AAAA state quarterfinal vs. Marist at Tom Riden Stadium. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Wolves 30, War Eagles 6

Difference maker: Joshua Thomas scored Buford’s first three touchdowns. His 48-yarder on fourth-and-two near midfield was the beginning of the end of Marist’s chances.

Stat that matters: 8 possessions without a first down for the War Eagles. Buford’s defense allowed eight first downs, but they came on two drives. Other than that, Marist couldn’t find any running room against the Wolves.

Turning point: Following Thomas’ 48-yard touchdown run, Buford got the ball back quickly on an on-sides kick. Isaac Nauta pulled in a 44-yard reception from Luke Humphrey on the drive’s first play before Thomas ended the four-play, 49-yard march by diving into the end zone for a 1-yard score and a 21-3 edge.

Who’s next: Buford (13-0) plays at Cartersville (12-1) in the Class AAAA semifinals next Friday. The Purple Hurricanes won a coin toss late Friday night to determine which team would host the contest.

BUFORD — Determination helped Joshua Thomas and Buford take control Friday night and punch the Wolves’ ticket into the state semifinals for an eighth consecutive season.

A stingy defense and an unusually prolific passing game didn’t hurt their cause, either.

Thomas rushed for 75 yards and scored three touchdowns, the Wolves surrendered 87 total yards and Luke Humphrey threw for 177 yards and a score as Buford defeated Marist 30-6 in a Class AAAA quarterfinal at Tom Riden Stadium. The victory was the Wolves’ (13-0) 38th in a row and sets up a semifinal matchup with Cartersville, which notched a 35-31 comeback win against Sandy Creek on Friday.

A coin toss late Friday night determined the semifinal will be at Cartersville's Weinman Stadium. Buford is going for its seventh state championship since the start of the 2007 season.

Thomas’ first score came on a 1-yard run that was his fourth consecutive carry on a set of plays that started at the War Eagles’ 3. The third-and-goal run on the second play of the second quarter put Buford ahead 7-3 after Joey Gogol’s 25-yard field goal midway through the first quarter had given Marist (11-2) a 3-0 edge.

Following a War Eagles three-and-out, Thomas and Buford went for it on fourth-and-two near midfield. Thomas broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and immediately sprinted past the Marist defense for a 48-yard touchdown and a 14-3 lead at the 7:09 mark of the second quarter.

“I was just determined not to let one man bring me down,” Thomas said.

The Wolves then caught the War Eagles off-guard as Matthew Bonadies kicked and recovered an on-side attempt at Marist’s 49 on the ensuing kickoff. Powered by an Isaac Nauta 44-yard reception from Luke Humphrey, it only took Buford four plays to score again. Thomas dove over defenders for a 1-yard touchdown to make it 21-3 with 5:42 remaining before halftime.

“They’re the team that wants to play keep-away from you,” Buford coach Jess Simpson said. “So that was a big deal getting that possession.”

Simpson wasn’t surprised by Thomas’ grit, particularly on the goal line. He said his senior tends to play better when things get tougher.

A 75-yard kickoff return by Griffin King set up Gogol for a 29-yard field goal that cut it to 21-6 with 3:48 left in the opening half.

Marist snapped the ball out of the back of the end zone on a potential punt as a safety pushed the Wolves’ edge to 23-6 with 2:51 to go in the third quarter.

Nauta capped the scoring when he broke free across the middle for a 22-yard touchdown pass from Humphrey on the second play of the fourth quarter.

Buford’s defense limited Marist to 69 rushing yards.

The War Eagles’ eight first downs came on two drives. Marist had eight drives where it picked up no first downs.

“We just kept on pounding,” said Thomas, who also had a third-down sack for Buford. “We wanted to knock them back because they’re a Wing-T team. So 2 yards is good for them.”

Nauta had three receptions for 97 yards and Aaron Auer had two catches for 70 yards.

“What they were doing on defense was tough. They were diving, so we couldn’t get much run game going,” said Nauta, comparing Marist’s defense to that of St. Pius X, which Buford beat for the 2012 Class AAA title. “We knew we had to throw it a little bit, and that ended up working more to our advantage rather than keeping it on the ground. But we broke a couple good runs and got some touchdowns out of it.”

Nauta said he and his teammates did a great job of being disciplined against Marist. Now they’re one win from playing in the Georgia Dome for a title in their first year in Class AAAA.

But Simpson knows his guys will keep their eyes on Cartersville first and foremost.

“You work this long and this hard, you want to finish it,” Simpson said. “And you can’t get ahead of yourself, and our kids are doing a really good job of being locked in and staying focused.”

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