OAKWOOD — The Battle of Oakwood delivered again.
In one of Hall County's most competitive and entertaining rivalries, Johnson High's A.J. Millwood caught a 24-yard pass from Luke Gilleland with 18 seconds left to lift the Knights to a 33-31 victory over West Hall on Friday night.
The late score sent Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium into a frenzy. Johnson (1-5, 1-1 Region 8B-AAA) won consecutive games in the South Hall series for the first time since 2003-04.
"This is amazing. It's probably my favorite game ever, one that I'll remember the most," said Knights lineman Taylor Whitmire.
The senior caused and recovered a West Hall fumble with 3:58 left to set up Johnson's winning drive.
"Our coaches told us that if we ever wanted it, now was the time," Whitmire said. "It was time to bow up and show that we could make big plays like this."
The Knights' offense made good on its end of the thriller with a 13-play, 80-yard march in 3:40 that ended in one of the biggest catches in school history. All of Gilleland's completions came on the drive, with the junior finding Cody Lewallen three times for 40 yards and Millwood for the game-winner.
"I missed one earlier in the drive and knew I had to make up for it," said Millwood, a sophomore. "Luke threw a really good ball and I just made the catch. This is unreal. It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life. We've been playing so hard and tonight it paid off."
From Gilleland: "A.J. just made a great catch. We run a two-minute offense every day in practice, and today it worked. Hopefully we can keep this going and win some more games."
The South Hall rivalry game was another battle royale, although a bit tamer than past years. After combining for more than a mile of total offense in the last two games, West Hall (3-3, 1-1) and Johnson went for 652 yards between them.
Cedric Harris led the Knights with 147 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries. He was taken off the field in the third quarter on a stretcher with an undisclosed injury. Johnson coach Paul Friel said the sophomore had movement in his lower extremities.
Backfield mate Joey Brooks, a junior ran for 106 yards on 19 carries. The two workhorses and Johnson's offensive line wore down the interior of the West Hall defense in the first quarter.
"I thought we could move the ball after watching our kids this week," Friel said. "They worked really hard this week, and it helped having both our backs (Harris and Brooks) for the game together. If we could establish that (inside) play, I thought we could ride it all night.
"(On the winning pass), we had thrown it to the other side of the field early, and A.J. collided with one our linebackers," Friel said. "It was there. After we missed another one, we decided to go back to that play again on the other side. It went just like we drew it up."
The opening half was typical in the series. Johnson ran for 211 yards (with none passing) and had eight plays for more than 10 yards. Most of the big chunks came on plays up the middle.
Harris had touchdown runs of 17 and 11 yards in the first half - he had 116 yards in that span - and Gilleland scored on a 1-yard sneak as time ran out in the first quarter.
First-half mistakes hurt the Knights, though. West Hall recovered two fumbles, both inside Johnson's 31, and turned them into 14 points, both on touchdown passes from freshman backup quarterback Chandler Newton to Shunquez Stephens.
Newton recovered a muffed punt after the Knights had West Hall stopped on a three-and-out, and Damian Millsap ripped the ball away on Johnson's next possession.
The Spartans did not turn the ball over in the opening half. In the third quarter, the Spartans got a 41-yard field goal from Ishmail Miranda and a 23-yard touchdown connection from Newton to William Stroup on the first play following another West Hall fumble recovery.
Stroup, a senior, finished with four catches for 57 yards. Newton went 10-of-15 for 151 yards.
Johnson senior back Brandon Buncy was taken off the field on a stretcher midway through the first quarter. He was hit out of bounds following a 16-yard gain on the Knights' second possession. He gave a thumbs-up to the crowd while being taken off the field. Buncy returned to the stadium in the third quarter.
The average margin of victory during the last three years is 2.4 points. The rivalry game has been decided by fewer than 7 points seven times since the two schools began playing annually in 1994.