Buford vs. Cartersville
When: 4:30 p.m. Dec. 12
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Tickets: $20, per GHSA
WA: Elijah Holyfield 22 rush, PAT no good, 10:19 left in 1Q, 6-0 Woodward
BHS: Mic Roof 21 pass to Brandon Marsh, PAT good, 7:26 left in 1Q, 7-6 Buford
WA: Holyfield 1 rush, PAT no good, 0 seconds left in 1Q, 12-6 Woodward
WA: Glover pass to Stephen Elliott, PAT no good, 3:37 left, 3:37 left in 2Q, 18-6 Woodward
BHS: TD Roof 2 rush, PAT good, 12 seconds left in 2Q, 18-14 Woodward
BHS: Martin Mangram 4 rush, PAT good, 4:13 left in 3Q, 21-18 Buford
BHS: Mangram 38 rush, PAT good, 4:52 left in 4Q, 28-18 Buford
BHS: Mangram 3 rush, PAT good, 2:36 left in 4Q, 35-18 Buford
When the best was needed, the best stepped up for Buford.
The Wolves’ defense pitched a shutout in the second half to overcome an 11-point deficit and secure a tense 35-18 Class AAAA semifinal win Friday over top-ranked Woodward Academy (13-1).
No. 3 Buford (13-1) will next tackle Cartersville in the state title game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta at 4:30 p.m. next Saturday.
“Every year, it’s different,” said Buford senior defensive end Shug Frazier, a North Carolina State commit. “But this is the most important one. This is my senior year, so this means even more.”
Buford has won 28 straight home playoff games and has made the state championship game each year since 2007. The Wolves have won seven state titles in the last eight seasons.
Martin Mangram (15 carries, 119 yards) ran for three touchdowns in the second half to lead the Wolves, who had to battle for every inch at Tom Riden Stadium.
Senior running back Elijah Holyfield, the son of former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, ran for 59 yards and two touchdowns to help the visiting War Eagles (13-1) to an 18-7 lead with 3:37 left in the first half.
But the Wolves’ defense held Woodward to just 27 rushing yards in the second half to make a strong comeback and book its latest ticket to Atlanta. Mangram scored his final two touchdowns in the final five minutes.
“We changed a few different things (at halftime) and we came out stronger,” said Buford coach Jess Simpson. “It’s real football, and that can happen, getting down. We weren’t shocked, we just had to respond.”
Nothing came easy against Woodward, which came to Tom Riden Stadium on the crest of its best regular season in school history.
Junior quarterback Ryan Glover (15 of 33, 177 yards, TD) completed three straight first downs on the opening drive before Holyfield barged his way into the end zone from 22 yards out.
Two drives later, running back Xavier Gantt lost control of a handoff and fumbled on the Buford 5, which allowed Holyfield to score again soon after.
The Wolves had the chance to turn things around when Jacob Martin blocked a rare Woodward Academy punt with 8:04 left in the first half, but the Wolves were then stuffed on four downs.
Buford came into Friday’s game averaging 267 rushing yards per game, but was held to just 59 yards on the ground in the first half.
Holyfield, a University of Georgia commit, pushed Woodward into Buford territory just before the half when Glover faked a sneak, then tossed a short lob to an unmarked Stephen Elliott, who trotted home from 42 yards to give the War Eagles an 18-7 lead.
“We just stayed composed,” said Mangram. “We knew it would be a four-quarter game, we just had to not let it affect us. It shows how strong this team is, I’m really proud.”
Buford converted a fourth down with 1:06 left in the first half on the Woodward 48 to help bolster an 80-yard drive that lasted just over three minutes. TD Roof cut the lead to 18-14 when he ran in from 1 yard out.
On the second drive after halftime, Buford quarterback Mic Roof converted a tricky third down, tossed a 25-yard dart to Caleb Auer, then handed the ball off to Mangram for a 4-yard score that helped Buford take the lead just after halftime, 21-18.
It capped off a 72-yard drive that lasted five minutes.
“Sometimes, we just have to settle down,” said Simpson. “We just have to play our best when the best is needed.”
That’s when Buford’s defense showed its mettle: It held the visitors to four straight turnovers on downs in each of the War Eagles’ fourth quarter possessions, taking the wind out of any hope of a Woodward comeback.
Buford’s defense sacked Glover three times, including twice in the second half.
Mangram then used strong field possession on those four-and-outs to strengthen his stat line: He picked up touchdown runs from 38 and 3 yards out in the fourth quarter to seal a nervy victory in front of a raucous home crowd.
Buford’s senior class will play in the state final at the Georgia Dome for the fourth straight year. Mangram said it’s an “amazing experience.”
“I’m so proud to be back,” he said. “As a senior, we’ve got a lot of pressure to go there and do something great.”
Buford has won each of its four contests against Cartersville, including two wins in the state semifinals in 2012 and 2014. The Purple Hurricanes overwhelmed Bainbridge 38-7 at home Friday to earn their spot in the state final.
The last time Cartersville made it to the state final game was in 1999, when it defeated Hart County for a championship.