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Top-ranked Buford running strong into Saturday's state title game
Wolves striving to earn seventh state championship since 2007
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Buford senior Joshua Thomas is brought down at the end of a run against Mary Persons in the second round of the state playoffs Nov. 21 in Buford. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Buford vs. St. Pius X

When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

Cost: $20

Buford seems so complete heading into Saturday’s state title game.

The top-ranked Wolves (14-0) run the ball at will, pass when they need to, and play shutdown defense. If that sounds like Buford’s formula every season, that’s because it has been.

Buford plays No. 7 St. Pius X (12-2) for the Class AAAA at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The Wolves are seeking their seventh state title under coach Jess Simpson, and are playing for a state championship for the eighth straight season.

“It’s a great feeling to know we’ve made it this far in the season and have a chance to play for a state championship,” said Buford running back Joshua Thomas.

In the postseason, the Wolves have had nothing but smooth sailing. Buford has coasted to victory in all four playoff matchups thus far, including a 27-3 win in the state semifinals against Cartersville Dec. 5.

Looking for a chance to de-throne the back-to-back defending state champion Wolves, St. Pius X mounted a 21-point rally to beat Woodward Academy 28-21 in its semifinal matchup last week.

Buford has 10 state titles in school history, including six since Dexter Wood, now the school’s athletic director, led it to three straight championships (2001-2003).

St. Pius lost to Buford 10-3 in the Class AAA state championship game two years ago. The Golden Lions’ only state championship came in 1968, but they are still a formidable opponent with a stout running attack.

“St. Pius has a great tradition, they do a great job running that triple option,” Buford coach Jess Simpson said. “They’re a great football program.”

This year’s state championship meeting should feature a pace just as rapid as the last time the two played in 2012.

Buford and St. Pius X have both been so efficient moving the ball on the ground — behind talented offensive lines — that the passing game hasn’t been all that necessary.

Buford has rushed for 3,586 yards (256 per game) and 63 rushing touchdowns. Meanwhile, St. Pius X has run for big yardage behind Dalton Wilson (856 yards, 15 touchdowns) and Joey Connors (779 yards, 10 touchdowns).

The Wolves, however, should have a substantial advantage with a defense which has allowed 583 total rushing yards (42 per game) and only one rushing score all season.

Thomas, who also plays linebacker, said one of the keys against St. Pius X is a fast start on defense.

“It’s really important for us to start strong on defense,” said Thomas, who holds a plethora of major Division-I scholarship offers. “We want to force (St. Pius) into a lot of second-and-12, and third-and-10 situations on offense.”

The Wolves have yet to have any major lapses on defense. They have allowed just 1 1/2 yards per carry this season, and 119 yards of combined offense per game. Buford’s defense has yielded only seven touchdowns this season. The Wolves have shut out an opponent six times in 2014.

“When you talk about Buford football, it starts with playing great defense,” said Wood, who still patrols the sideline like he did in his head coaching days.

Simpson said the anticipation associated with playing for a state championship is the same now as when he won his first as Buford coach in 2007.

“It makes an old man feel young again,” said Simpson, who has been on board with the Wolves for all nine state titles since 2001.

On Friday, the Wolves went through a final two-hour dress rehearsal, complete with speakers on the practice field blaring crowd noise. Buford was working on calling plays and lining up without being able to hear any play call.

Even though Buford’s average margin of victory was 38 points through the first 14 games, Simpson expects a much tighter battle with the state championship hanging in the balance.

He said early season out-of-conference games are scheduled for the specific reason of preparing for what is expected to be a four-quarter battle against the Golden Lions. The Wolves’ tightest game of the season was a 27-20 win early in the campaign against McEachern — a state semifinalist in Class AAAAAA.

On offense, Thomas is No. 1 in the running game for the Wolves with 97 carries for 763 yards, while Xavier Gantt is close behind with 55 runs for 671 yards. The Wolves have had 30 different players register at least one run this season, with 10 guys going over 100 yards.

Coming into today’s title game, Buford has won 39 straight games, including a 15-0 run to the state championship in 2013.

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