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High school football: State semifinal previews
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Gainesville's run led by unsung heroes

Burke County at Gainesville

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: City Park Stadium, Gainesville

Radio: 1240-AM, 1330-AM

Online: gpb.org/sports

Coaches: Burke County, Eric Parker; Gainesville, Bruce Miller

Records: Burke County (12-1, No. 1 Region 3-AAA); Gainesville (12-1, No. 1 Region 8-AAA).

Key players: Burke County, RB/DB Montres Kitchens (5-10, 165 Sr.), QB Corey Mayton (6-3, 190 Sr.), RB/DB Donquell Green (6-0, 200 Sr.). Gainesville, QB Deshaun Watson (6-2, 185 So.), DB Fred Payne (5-10, 170 Jr.), DT Jeremiah Ledbetter (6-3, 240 Sr.)

Outlook: Gainesville and Burke County have put together impressive runs to make it to the state semifinals. After a Week 1 loss to Buford, the Red Elephants have won 12 straight. Meanwhile, the Bears lost to Class AAAAA's Lowndes in September, but have won 10 straight since.

The Red Elephants are led offensively by sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson (2,914 yards passing, 39 touchdowns), who accounted for five touchdowns last week in the state quarterfinals.

He's completed 200 of his 327 pass attempts this year (61 percent). He also needs only 57 rushing yards to top 1,000 on the ground.

His leading targets at wide receiver are Stephen Mason (859 yards, nine touchdowns) and Justin Cantrell (50 catches, 681 yards).

Last week in Cantrell's absence, junior Caleb Hayman stepped in with both touchdown receptions and finished with 89 yards. Tray Harrison led the Red Elephants last week with a team-high eight catches for 84 yards.

Theoretically, No. 6 Gainesville has paved its way nicely to playing for a state title. Last Friday, the Red Elephants knocked off No. 1 Sandy Creek, 35-21, in Gainesville.

After winning a coin flip with No. 4 Burke County for home field advantage last Saturday, Gainesville is ready to play its fourth home playoff game.

Gainesville last played in the state semifinals in 2009 against Flowery Branch when both were in Region 7-AAA. Burke County was a state semifinal team in 2010 before losing to Carrollton, 49-14.

Meanwhile, Burke County is no stranger to making a playoff run either.

The Bears have qualified for the postseason in each of Parker's five seasons in Waynesboro. Parker has taken his teams to the playoffs for 12 consecutive seasons, including his previous post at Laney High from 1997-2006.

Kitchens is a weapon on offense with 700 yards of offense and 14 touchdowns, while Mayton is Burke County's leading rusher with 1,006 yards (8.7 yards per carry).

Offensively, Burke County's numbers lean heavily toward running the ball with an average of 288 yards on the ground and only 98 passing per game.

"We want to try to force them into trying to pass the ball," Miller said.

Burke County is allowing only 186 yards of offense per game, almost split evenly between run and pass yards.
During the regular season, the Bears outscored the opposition by an average of 36 points per game.

That average margin of victory has been chopped down to 22 points in the postseason. Burke County's closest game of the season was a 32-28 win against Allatoona in the state quarterfinals last Friday in Waynesboro.

Burke County hasn't won a road playoff game since 1997, its last year in the state championship game.

Prediction: GAINESVILLE. The Red Elephants have everything going for them right now after beating top-ranked Sandy Creek last Friday.

Buford at Carver (Columbus)

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Columbus Memorial Stadium, Columbus

Coaches: Buford, Jess Simpson; Carver, Dell McGee

Records: Buford (13-0, No. 1 Region 6-AA); Carver (12-1, No. 1 Region 5-AA)

Key players: Buford, OL/DL Vadal Alexander (6-6, 315 Sr.), LB/TE Dillon Lee (6-5, 240 Sr.), RB/LB Andre Johnson (5-11, 220 Sr.). Carver, RB Marquez Holloway (5-6, 160 Sr.), DT Darius Bennett (6-0, 265 Sr.), DB Deion Bonner (5-11, 170 Sr.)

Outlook: The semifinal between Buford and Carver presents an interesting matchup for many reasons, not the least of which is the history between the two teams over the past two seasons. In its second game of 2010, Buford lost at Carver, 14-0. It is the only time the Wolves have been shut out since 1999.

Since that game, however, they have won 26 consecutive contests, including a 35-7 victory against Carver earlier this season. This game serves as a de facto tiebreaker, sending the winner to the Class AA state championship.

On paper, Buford seems to be the heavy favorite, especially when considering the head-to-head result earlier this season. But Simpson was quick to dismiss the idea that the previous result was any clear indication of how this game would go.

“No, we don’t think about that,” he said. “We feel like we’ve improved this year, but I think they have, too. And it will be on the road this time. We know we’re going into a hornets’ nest, and we need to make sure we don’t give them the opportunity to get going too much.”

The numbers reflect Simpson’s point.

While Buford is widely regarded as one of the best defenses in the state, Carver’s numbers aren’t far off. Since the two met, the Wolves have allowed 7.1 points per game; Carver is just a shade above at 7.5.

The Tigers have recorded three shutouts, one shy of Buford’s four, and have been equally dominating in their wins. In that span, they average a 32.6-point win margin, with their closest being a 28-14 win against Callaway.

On offense, the Tigers have been equally impressive.

The biggest threat on the offense, Holloway has rushed for more than 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. Others, running back Brandon Thomas and quarterback Torrance McGee, have contributed as well. Thomas has rushed for 570 yards and eight touchdowns, while McGee has notched 11 rushing touchdowns on the year.

McGee has also, in limited passing opportunities, put together solid numbers, passing for 1,135 yards on 64-percent passing. He’s thrown 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions on the year, similar numbers to his Buford counterpart, Sam Clay.

Carver coach Dell McGee said that it will be important for these guys to perform well. Above all else, however, he stressed the importance of not hurting themselves.

“Buford doesn’t really have any weaknesses,” McGee said. “So we need to make sure we don’t hurt ourselves with penalties or turnovers. And we’ve got to throw the ball well, because they have a stingy run defense. We’re just trying to play better this time.”

Still, it will be difficult to top the Wolves.

The Wolves’ closest wins this season have been 28 points, against Carver, Lovett and Greater Atlanta Christian. They succeed on the ground and dominate on defense, a difficult combination to overcome

Last week against a very capable Elbert County, Buford notched 413 yards and allowed just 176. Only 64 of those came on the ground.

A similar performance tonight will likely yield another win for the Wolves.

Prediction: BUFORD. The Wolves defense is as dominating as ever, and they move one step away from a record fifth consecutive state championship.

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