ATLANTA — Heads hung. Tears lined the players’ eyes. There was no celebration; there was no trophy presentation.
It was a sight normally reserved for opponents of the Buford Wolves.
But after winning four consecutive Class AA state championships, the Wolves were unable to find enough magic to finish off another spectacular season on top.
Playing each other in the title game for the fourth consecutive season, Buford was bested by Calhoun 27-24 on Friday at the Georgia Dome.
It ended a 27-game winning streak for the Wolves and snuffed out their hopes of setting a state record with their fifth consecutive championship.
“You can’t fault their fight,” coach Jess Simpson said. “They fought until the last minute, but it wasn’t meant to be today.”
For a few short minutes, it appeared that Buford (14-1) would find a way to do as it had in the past.
Playing from behind for nearly the entire game, the Wolves woke up with just 1:12 left in the game. Trailing 24-10, quarterback Sam Clay took advantage of a second chance when an apparent game-ending interception was called off as a result of a personal foul penalty.
On the next play, Clay found receiver Paris Head in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown to cut the lead to seven points.
When an onside kick failed, the Buford defense stepped up as it hadn’t all day, using three timeouts and forcing a three-and-out for the potent Calhoun offense.
A bad snap to Calhoun (15-0) punter Zane Rhodes resulted in a forced fumble by Andre Johnson, which was recovered and returned 40 yards for a score by Dillon Lee to force overtime.
With all the momentum, it appeared Buford would be able to escape with an unbelievable victory.
But on the first play from scrimmage in overtime, Johnson ran 9 yards, took a helmet to his arm and fumbled the football into the waiting hands of the Calhoun defense.
It was the fourth lost fumble of the game for the Buford offense.
Kicker Adam Griffith then kicked a 32-yard field goal, his third make of the game to pull off the surprising upset.
“There was a bad look in everybody’s eyes there at the end,” Calhoun coach Hal Lamb said. “But we found a way to win that football game at the end. I just told them to regroup and that it was a whole different ballgame.”
Lamb spoke of how great it felt to finally win one over Buford.
“Our kids do believe and this is for the Calhoun community,” he said. “It is unbelievable. You are in this business to change lives, but you are also in this business to win championships. Lo and behold, we got our first one.”
After a scoreless first quarter, the two teams traded field goals to get on the board in the second quarter.
Buford appeared to be moving toward a score to take the lead in the second quarter, but came up short when Dontravious Wilson fumbled just 3 yards short of the goal line.
Calhoun took advantage on the ensuing drive. Quarterback Taylor Lamb, being rushed by two Buford defenders, found running back Darius Washington on a screen pass, which Washington took 63 yards for a score.
It took just one play for Buford to respond.
Wolves running back C.J. Moore, on the first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive, punched in a 68-yard touchdown to even the game.
“I can’t remember being that up and down in a game,” Simpson said after the game. “That’s probably one of the most up and down (games). The bottom line is that Calhoun outplayed us, they outcoached us, they were better. We were lucky to been in it there at the end.”
Calhoun extended its lead with a 15-yard Lamb touchdown run in the third quarter. Lamb finished 17 of 35 passing for 189 yards and a touchdown to go with 60 yards and a score on the ground.
Buford fullback and linebacker Nathan Staub left the game in the first quarter due to a concussion. His presence on both sides was missed, Simpson said.
“We missed him,” Simpson said simply.
The Buford offense was led by Clay (11 of 20 passing for 144 yards and a touchdown) and Moore (six carries for 94 yards and a score).
Johnson also added 77 yards on 13 carries.
The loss ended a great run for the program. Simpson said he especially felt for his seniors, who were unable to achieve their ultimate goal.
“This is hard, it hurts,” Simpson said. “It’s hard to even know what to say right now. I told the seniors how much I appreciated what they have invested over their four years. Part of life is losing, and we can grow from this. One moment doesn’t define you.”
Calhoun running back Washington finished with 47 yards on 12 carries to go with his big touchdown reception.