BUFORD — Defense has been the name of the game for the Buford High football team for the last decade. It came through again Friday with two critical stops in the Wolves’ 24-0 victory over Pepperell in the first round of the Class AA playoffs.
Third-ranked Buford (10-1) allowed just 155 yards, forced a fumble and intercepted a goal-line pass. It was more than enough to send the defending state champion Wolves to Jefferson for a second round matchup next week.
"I’m glad this kind of play is typical for us," Buford coach Jess Simpson said. "When you can say that, it says a tremendous amount about how hard our kids play. We’re grateful for this."
The combination of Buford’s defense and fullback Jessel Curry proved lethal. The senior ran for 118 yards and two touchdown on just eight carries to lead a rushing attack that accounted for 251 of the Wolves’ 257 yards.
Curry scored on runs of 49 and 14 yards, and Sherman Page caught a 12-yard pass from Alexander Ross midway through the fourth quarter to seal the game, a play set up by AJ Cunningham’s fumble recovery. David Petroni also had a 26-yard field goal, and Eric Barr nabbed a critical interception that led to Curry’s second touchdown.
Curry did a little bit of everything: he ran, caught a pass, blocked, was Buford’s punter and led the Wolves’ linebacking group. He had four runs of longer than 14 yards up the middle, his biggest contributions on the night.
"We were pretty opportunistic and took advantage of some mistakes," Curry said. "(Pepperell) came out with a different look than what we saw on film so we had to adjust on the fly. We thought they would come up and play to stop the run up the middle but the plays were there."
The game’s biggest play came late in the second quarter from Buford’s defense. Tenth-ranked Pepperell (9-2) used a 26-yard run from Janier Ferguson and a 15-yard pass play from Jonathan Watters to Caleb Freeman to get inside the Wolves’ 5-yard line.
After being flagged for offsides, Buford stopped Pepperell four times inside the 3 including two run-stopping stuffs in the middle inside the goal line.
"When we stopped them, you could tell by looking at them and their crowd that they were down," said senior tackle Mitchell De-Walt. "They expected to punch it in but our guys stepped up and came through at the same time. From that point on, I don’t think they were the same."
The Dragons threatened again midway through the third quarter and drove down to the Buford 12. Backup quarterback Kyle Shifflet, in for an injured Watters, was flushed to the right and threw right to Barr.
That did it for the Dragons, who allowed six plays of more than 10 yards on the ensuing drive. Andr’e Johnson had 44 yards with two long gains that put Curry in position to put the game away.
"Those were big, big stops," said Barr, a junior. "We’ve always been a run-stopping team and to get a pass interception is just a bonus. Those turned around everything."
It was that kind of typical dominant defensive effort for Buford. Pepperell averaged just 3.2 yards per play. The Wolves sacked Watters three times and allowed just two plays of more than 15 yards.
Buford allowed just 155 total yards to offset 102 yards in penalties.
"A lot of our younger guys had never been in that position in the playoffs, down close to our goal line," Simpson said. "But they now have that experience and can use it. You hope that you can carry that over for seven more days."