For all of the fumbles, all of the miscues, all of the blown drives that Buford had Friday night, head coach Jess Simpson took at least a little confidence from his new team.
They fought through the troubles, and kept a 41-game winning streak alive.
“The way we’ve hung together through all the adversity, and there was a bunch of it, it’s a testament to them,” said Simpson. “All of the guys who don’t often get their named called, they stepped up and we were able to hold it together.”
The Wolves topped Eastern Christian Academy (Md.) 27-20 at Tom Riden Stadium in Buford, extending the team’s 17-year record of winning season-opening games.
Buford had six fumbles in the win, but recovered four of them to preserve a thin lead over the visitors, who have regular season games scheduled against teams from New Jersey and Florida this season.
A large Buford contingent was kept in suspense until senior R.J. Walker returned a 55-yard interception off of Honey Badgers quarterback Alex Barker with less than four minutes left to play in the fourth quarter.
The pick-six put Buford (1-0) safely up by two scores after the Honey Badgers had driven within the Wolves’ 45 yard line with the clock on their side.
Barker, a junior, had an excellent statistical day up until then. He finished 20 of 28 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown for Eastern Christian, who looked a threat from the very first drive.
The Honey Badgers (0-1) opened the scoring with a six-minute drive ended in Leddie Brown (16 rushes for 82 yards, 2 touchdowns) barreling into the end zone after Barker rattled off four straight first downs.
The Wolves, on the other hand, looked shaky at best when both running back Anthony Grant and quarterback Mic Roof coughed up fumbles before the end of the first quarter. Both were recovered.
“It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,” said Simpson. “I’m excited about when we get everyone healthy and running on all eight cylinders, where we can get this team to be.”
Martin Mangram (9 rushes, 40 yards, 2 touchdowns) did his part to get Buford on the scoreboard when he converted a 13-yard run that put the Wolves in the lead. But his lost fumble on Buford’s next possession, as the Wolves were poised on Eastern Christian’s 11-yard line, erased any growing momentum before the end of the half.
Mangram was unable to convert early in the second half, when his run on 4th and 2 was stuffed at the Honey Badgers’ goal line with 9:20 left in the third quarter.
“We thought we could win it,” said Eastern Christian coach Dwayne Thomas. “We know their history, their state championships, so we want to play the best in the country to see where we are ... The defense, we did great, four stops inside the 30, one on the goal line, so when you get that on defense, that’s great.”
As a unit, the Wolves had trouble keeping cadence, and gave up three false start penalties before the half.
Sophomore Christian Turner’s 2-yard touchdown rush just seconds before the fourth quarter provided a collective sigh of relief around Tom Riden Stadium for fans unfamiliar with close games to open the season.
Still, Buford let Eastern Christian Academy out of a 3rd and long at midfield early in the fourth quarter when Tavion Washington grabbed hold of a 20-yard catch. The next play was a 40-yard dash down the right sideline when Brown broke free of two tacklers to cut the lead to 14-12.
Mangram ran the ensuing kickoff back 29 yards to start the drive on the opposing 34. It only took three plays for Mangram to dive in from a yard out to extend Buford’s lead.
Still, the win wasn’t in hand until Walker’s pick proved decisive. The Honey Badgers drove nearly 50 yards with 6:57 left to play. Barker tossed a slant pass on 4th and 2, which Walker read the whole way. He sprinted into the end zone before getting mobbed by a crowd of his teammates.
“Boy, what a big-time play,” said Simpson. “He’s a great senior leader, and it was fun to see him get in there, make a play like that, give us a little breathing room.”
Eastern Christian’s Isiah Esdale made a 14-yard TD grab with less than a minute on the clock, but Buford was able to run out the clock and preserve its first win of the season. The Wolves are three-time defending state champions.