Directions: From Interstate 985 South take Exit 8; Take a right on Friendship Road and go through two red lights. Take a left on Buford Hwy. Turn right onto Sawnee Road and the school is approximately 1/4 mile ahead on the right.
Records: Fitzgerald (11-2); Buford (13-0)
Coaches: Fitzgerald, Robby Pruitt; Buford, Jess Simpson
Players to watch: Fitzgerald, RB/S Jamea Thomas (5-10, 185 Sr.), QB Brad Taylor (6-4, 185 Sr.), FB Nick Williams (5-9, 185 Jr.). Buford, OL/DL Dallas Lee (6-4, 295 Sr.), RB Cody Getz (5-7, 157 Sr.), RB Storm Johnson (6-1, 202 Jr.)
When Fitzgearld has the ball: Wing T vs. 4-3
Primarily a running team, Fitzgerald has shown this postseason that it can win with the pass too. Against Henry County in Round 2, Taylor threw for four touchdowns against a Warhawks defense that shut down Thomas and Williams, the team’s primary ball carriers. In their Round 3 win, the Purple Hurricanes took back to the ground since Pepperell tried to shut down the pass. Their offensive line lacks size, but is quick and athletic.
Fitzgerald enters tonight’s game averaging 37.8 points per game and the Purple Hurricanes have scored more than 40 points six times this season, including 60-plus scoring outputs on two seperate occassions. The offense has not slowed since reaching the postseason, scoring 39, 45 and 41 points in the first three rounds.
Throughout its history, Buford has been known to have one of the toughest defenses in any classification, and this year is no different. Anchored by University of Georgia verbal commit Dallas Lee (98 tackles, six sacks), the Wolves are surrendering a little more than a touchdown per game (7.4 points) and have recorded five shutouts this year.
But while Lee is the main man on the defensive line for Buford, he is certainly not the only one that has put up great numbers for the Wolves on defense. Andrew Sachais also has six sacks, which is 3.5 less than team-leader A.J. Cunningham. The Wolves secondary is anchored by Josh Rudnik, who leads the team with five interceptions and eight passes defensed.
When Buford has the ball: Multiple I vs. 4-4
Buford’s offensive mantra is simple, it wants establish the run earlier and often and maintain ball possession. That style of offense has worked for years for the Wolves, who enter tonight’s game with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Getz and Johnson. And while the two have combined for nearly 2,050 yards, their running styles are completely different. Getz has the speed and quickness that gives him the ability to turn any run into a big gain or touchdown, while Johnson is the bigger of the backs who uses his size to brush off would-be tacklers for substantial yards. Most defenses know that Buford likes to run the ball, yet the Wolves have been able to have success despite opposing defenses stacking eight men in the box.
When not running the ball, Buford has a more-than-capable quarterback in senior Michael May. While pass plays are rarely called, May has completed 67 percent of his pass attempts for 1,137 yards. His main receivers are Jessel Curry and Josh Rudnik, who have combined for 576 yards and three scores this year.
Fitzgerald’s defense is anchored by the hard-hitting safety Thomas, who was actually flagged earlier this postseason for what the official called “hitting too hard,” according to Pruitt. Thomas, a Georgia Tech verbal commit is quick from his safety position, and when needed to also plays linebacker for the Purple Hurricanes. Fitzgerald’s defense comes into tonight’s game surrendering only 12.5 points per game, and have held its first three playoff opponents to less than 20. Limiting Buford to that low point total may prove to be more difficult as the Wolves come in averaging nearly 40 points a game. Buford’s offense has been on point in the postseason, scoring 56 points in Round 1, and 44 in Rounds 2 and 3.
Prediction: BUFORD. The Wolves have won 28 straight football games and are a perfect 6-0 in semifinal games since 2000. Despite this being the top-ranked Wolves toughest test of the year, Buford will improve its semifinal record to 7-0 since 2000 and will advance to the state championship game to defend its title.
Since 2000, Buford is a perfect 6-0 in semifinal games played at the Georgia Dome, and while the location for this year’s semifinal matchup is different, the top-ranked Wolves hope to have the same success.
This year only the finals of each classification will be played at the Atlanta arena, meaning Buford will have to win one last home game in order to reach the team’s preseason goal.
“Back in January our goal was to get back to the Dome,” senior quarterback Michael May said. “It just so happens that this year it’s the state championship game.”
Playing one final home game has provided the seniors like May with a little extra motivation.
“We know no matter what, win, lose or tie, it’s our last home game,” May said. “That has a lot to do with how we’re going to approach this game.”
The game should prove to be Buford’s biggest test so far this year. Tonight, the No. 1-ranked Wolves (13-0) will play host to Region 1-AA’s Fitzgerald (11-2), a team that has won three consecutive road playoff games to advance to the semifinals.
“We’re playing a real quality opponent,” Buford coach Jess Simpson said. “This is the best team we’ve played all year, top to bottom.”
Fitgerald’s coach shares that same respect toward Buford.
“They don’t have any weaknesses,” Purple Hurricanes coach Bobby Pruitt said of the Wolves. “They have size, speed and there’s not too much you can exploit on them.”
While the Wolves and the Purple Hurricanes’ run to the semifinals have been different — all of Buford’s games have been played in the comfort of Tom Riden Stadium — the two teams are rather similar.
Both possess a strong running game, Buford’s anchored by senior Cody Getz (1,034 yards, 21 TDs) and junior Storm Johnson (1,015 yards, 18 TDs), while Fitzgerald’s features junior fullback Nick Williams and senior running back Jemea Thomas, who has verbally committed to Georgia Tech.
Both squads also pride themselves on winning as a team and are approaching tonight’s game as if it were any other Friday night.
“We haven’t done anything different,” said Pruitt of his team’s preparation. “It doesn’t matter who you play this week, we’re approaching it like we do all our games.”
Even if this game is yet another road game for Fitzgerald, which has played five consecutive away games.
“You’ve got to be ready to play no matter where you’re at,” Pruitt said. “It helps to stay at home, but when it’s all said and done you just gotta go out there and play football.”
The fact that Buford is the defending Class AA state champions also hasn’t played a factor in the game plan.
“We haven’t talked about that at all this week,” Pruitt said.
The Purple Hurricanes may not be focused on the Wolves’ success last year, the players, specifically the seniors at Buford are more than aware of what’s at stake tonight.
“These guys have really been waiting for this,” Simpson said. “These kids, fair or unfair, they’re not going to be satisfied until they win the last game, and they feel that’s how they are going to be judged.”