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No. 3 Buford at No. 7 Thomson
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: The Brickyard, Thomson
The stage is set for a battle of giants tonight in Thomson as the No. 7 Bulldogs get set to host No. 3 Buford in the quarterfinals of the Class AAAA football state playoffs.
For the Wolves (11-1), the giant is a stingy defense. For Thomson (11-1), an offense that has put up 539 points this season.
Buford is in the quarterfinals for the 16th consecutive season, while Thomson is making a trip to the third round for just the second time since 2012.
The last time the Bulldogs won a quarterfinal game was 2002. They also won the Class AAAA state championship that year.
Stingy is just one word that could be used to describe the defense of Buford. Another is dominant.
In 12 games this season, the Wolves have had seven shutout victories, three of which have come in the last three games. Those games, a 42-point win over Stephens County in a de facto region championship game, a 35-point game against Fayette County in the first round of the playoffs and a 42-0 defeat of Worth County last Friday night in Round 2.
“Our defense has been stout for the past couple of weeks,” said senior defensive end Caleb Auer. “I feel like we have just started playing together.”
What makes a defense which has allowed just 18 points in the last nine games so stout? According to senior defensive tackle Shug Frazier, it goes back to coaching.
The North Carolina State commit said Buford meets each Sunday to talk about what corrections need to be made for the coming week’s game. On Monday, the players watch film and break down their opponents’ offense.
During practice, a scout team runs through nearly every offensive set and play the defense will see on Friday night. The preparation is thorough and extensive, but relaxing, according to Frazier.
“It’s really comfortable on Fridays,” he said. “That does a good deal. When you’re prepared for a team and you know what you’re going to get, it makes it a lot easier and a lot smoother in the game. You’re a lot more relaxed and you can have a little bit of fun.”
For coach Jess Simpson, getting his guys to continuously buy in and commit to the game plan is about not letting them get bored throughout the process and teaching the players just enough to get the job done.
“Obviously as you play better teams and later into the playoffs, you play an opponent you might not have ever played, or play against a new coaching staff, there’s a lot of detail in the preparation,” Simpson said. “There’s a lot of learning as a coach and then figuring out ‘What can I teach?’ and ‘What can they learn?’ We always say it doesn’t matter what we know, it’s what they know. You can’t give it all to (the players), but you have to give them enough.”
The Wolves have allowed double digits in just two games this season — the opener to Eastern Christian Academy (Maryland), which Buford won 27-20, and McEachern in Week 3, which the Indians won 37-14. The loss ended a streak of 42 wins for the Wolves.
Simpson said the loss “was what it was when it happened,” but he knows it was good for his team.
“I’ve been at Buford a long time,” he said. “When we’ve lost a game early, it’s always been good for us. I think with all the injuries we went through, the depth we’ve created and the way this team’s grown, we’ve gotten better (since then). How much better? I guess this Friday is the time to see.”
Frazier said the loss was eye-opening.
“You want an undefeated season, but it is good to get a loss early in the season to really open your eyes and see where you need to be,” Frazier said.
The Bulldogs are coming into the matchup averaging just below 45 points per contest.
“They spread you out to run the ball,” said Buford linebacker TD Roof. “Their running backs are good. They’re physical, they’re fast. We’ve got to be in the right spot and tackle. We’ve got to make plays when we can make plays. We can’t let opportunities pass us up.”
The Bulldogs are averaging 311 yards per game on the ground. The biggest factor in Thomson’s run game is senior Billy Mance. Mance has 200 carries this season with 1,698 yards and 27 scores to show for it.
Though he’s getting the bulk of the carries, Mance has junior Michael Thomas (793 yards, 7 touchdowns) and sophomore Tyrek Braswell (547 yards, 5 touchdowns) coming in for relief from time to time.
“Those guys have been able to take some heat off Billy and keep him fresh at times,” said Thomson coach Rob Ridings. “They all complement each other. They all bring something different to the table.
“Billy’s a power runner. He’ll take the hole and knock the hole open, but he has the speed to take it to the house. Mike is a slasher type with good vision. Tyrek is the combination of the two. He’s not quite as fast, not quite as big, but he has a good forward body lean.”
Last week, even without Mance, who was out nursing an injury, the Bulldogs were still able to muster 334 yards on the ground. Thomas scored on runs of 75 and 58 yards in the win.
Also helping take some pressure off Mance is senior quarterback Rashad Sturgis. Sturgis has just over 1,000 yards passing and has covered more than 300 on the ground.
“What’s most surprising about Rashad is this is his first year of varsity football,” Ridings said. “Rashad was playing JV this time last year. He’s had a most impressive year.”
Ridings said his offense has improved each week and is a “big part of why we have a shot to be where we’re at.”
But, he said in his team’s 12 games this season, it hasn’t seen anything like the size and speed Buford has.
“They’re very physical and good with their hands,” Ridings said. “It’s going to be a huge, huge challenge for us to block those guys. (Auer) and (Frazier) are great football players.”
With the Bulldogs preparing for the Wolves this week, Ridings said “it’s scary” looking at the defensive numbers for Buford this season.
Though Thomson’s offense has been putting up big numbers, Buford hasn’t allowed any through its 12 games. The Wolves have given up a total of 75 points and 604 rushing yards this season.
Something’s got to give. The exceptional defensive play of Buford or the high-scoring, power-run offense of the Bulldogs. One will have to outlast the other.
“They’re big home run hitters,” Roof said of Thomson. “Honestly, we’ve just got to keep them in front of us. If a hole or gap gets open and we let them get through, they’ve got breakaway speed.”
As with a lot of the stats coming into this contest, the numbers say there won’t be many “home runs” hit by the Bulldogs. Buford has only given up 27 “explosive plays,” which the team defines as run plays over 15 yards or pass plays of more than 20.
Frazier said the Wolves will not be able to give Thomson any space because “they can hit holes, bounce it and be to the house in no time.”
This will be the second consecutive game playing teams who average more than 300 yards rushing for Buford. Last week, the Wolves held Worth County to just 142 yards on the ground.
Auer said Buford will have to play fast.
“They’ve got some speed on the edge we’re going to have to match up with,” Auer said. “We’re going to have to fly around and play physically like Buford football plays. That’s the key to success in this game.”
Simpson said in order for a win, “we’ve just got to be us.”
For Ridings and the Bulldogs, the coach said his squad will have to play mistake-free football.
“We’re going to have to take care of the football,” he said. “We can’t make glaring mistakes. We need to move the football. We can’t be out there all night going against the power offense of Buford either. There’s not a dropoff in the players they’re rolling in.
“We’ve got to be smart and can’t be out there all night defensively,” Ridings continued. “They’ll beat us down. They’re that good in terms of the physicality they bring.”
As for the Wolves, Roof said they’ll just have to play their best game yet.
“We’re going to have to play our best game we’ve had this year,” Roof said. “They score points, they’re fast and they’re home run hitters. We’ve just got to play our best defense we’ve played and execute the game plan.”