TOCCOA — Mark Palmer never took a single snap last year during his junior season at Stephens County.
But on Senior Night, and when his team needed a win to make the playoffs, Palmer came up huge.
The senior quarterback completed all four of his passes for 213 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Indians to a 56-0 win over Johnson in the Region 8-AAA play-in game at The Reservation.
Stephens County, which has reached the playoffs five of the last six years, visits Carrollton in the first round of the Class AAA playoffs next week.
The Indians (8-2) took control early by scoring three touchdowns in the first quarter, including one on an 80-yard pass from Palmer to T'omas Colbert. Palmer threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to DK Dooley minutes earlier.
"Our kids have been playing that way all year," Stephens County coach Travis Noland said. "They feed off the fast starts."
Sophomore running back Chaz Thornton normally was the catalyst for those previous fast starts, but Johnson (2-8) kept the 5-foot-7 running back in check for the majority of the first half.
"We did better than I thought, but they kept getting the big (passing plays)," Johnson coach Paul Friel said. "That was the least of my worries coming in."
Noland said every prior opponent has focused on shutting down Thornton, who scored three touchdowns Friday, but only accumulated 59 yards on 13 carries.
All three of Thornton's touchdowns came in the first half. His final touchdown was set up by a Johnson miscue on the ensuing kickoff following his second score. The Knights failed to receive the ball, and when it landed, several Indians jumped on it to give them the ball on Johnson's 20.
Four plays later, Thornton scampered around the left side of the line for a 3-yard touchdown.
"We really had some problems on special teams early," Friel said. "But these young guys learned from the older guys not to give up.
"They learned how to be tough. It was an awesome effort from the young guys."
Especially sophomore Cedric Harris, who despite being "banged up," finished with 109 yards on 19 carries. Junior quarterback Luke Gilleland had 52 yards on 13 carries.
The big plays did Johnson in again during the second half. Cassadine Blassingame scored on a 68-yard pass from Palmer and Marticus Gibson scored on a 40-yard run.
"They're very well-coached and an experienced team," Friel said of the Indians. "They adjust on defense very quickly and make changes they need to make."
After starting the season 0-5, the Knights earned a berth in the play-in game by finishing 2-3 in the south subregion. But they were clearly overmatched by the Indians, who if not for a seven point loss to White County earlier this year, would have been playing for a region title.
"That loss was disappointing because that was this team's goal," Noland said. "I was most pleased with how they came back from that loss and didn't lose sight of the goal of making the playoffs."