Following Friday night’s road football quarterfinal, Buford High had a spring in its step, and was quite vocal in its corner of the Stockbridge High football field.
“We want Rome — We want Rome!” The players shouted in celebration of their 20-17 victory over second-ranked Stockbridge in the Class 5A playoffs.
The third-ranked Wolves (11-1) are through to the state semifinals for the 11th-consecutive year, also booking their shot at a revenge showdown with the defending Class 5A champs next Friday night. Rome, which defeated Buford in the championship game at the Georgia Dome last December, routed Starr’s Mill 59-10 in its quarterfinal game.
“Rome’s a great program, and we’ve got so much respect for them. ...We’re honored to be playing in the semifinals, regardless of who the opponent is,” Buford first-year coach John Ford said. “But we know we have a great challenge in front of us. Came out with some mistakes early, but we’ll have a great week of practice for sure.”
But the Wolves had to come from behind in order to get that chance.
After trailing by 10 at intermission, Buford turned it around to score 17 points against the top-seeded Tigers. Anthony Grant and Christian Turner capped back-to-back touchdown drives in the final quarters, the first an 11-play four-minute drive in the third. The second was berthed by a Tigers fumble which occurred off the center-quarterback exchange — one of two lost fumbles in the contest that resulted in a Buford score. The Wolves also got a pair Hayden Olsen field goals, the second from 29-yards out to put Buford ahead for good with 6:08 left to play.
“Our kids are resilient. ...I knew we’d battle back,” Ford said. "You know, we’re best when we’re playing fast (on offense). That’s what I gotta get better at doing and the kids did a great job responding to it.”
Buford got some big-time completions from freshman Aaron McLaughlin, who threw a pick-six to open the game, in that span. The biggest chunk of his 100 passing yards in the second half came off a 41-yard loft to wideout Isaiah Issac, who managed to get one foot in-bounds along the sideline after making the leaping grab at the Stockbridge 9. It set up Olsen’s eventual game-winning boot.
“I thought the defense played well. The second half, we just gave up plays we couldn’t give up,” Stockbridge coach Kevin Whitley said. “We were in position, not like we weren’t ready for it.”
The same Tigers unit to build their initial lead off some big plays, certainly had their chances late. An attempt at some trickery near the end of the third quarter resulted in an overthrown pass to a wide-open target off flea-flicker. The Tigers later dropped a sure-pick inside the Buford 10 with under four minutes to play.
“They were wide open,” Whitley said. Those type of things you gotta execute.”
The Wolves’ swarming defense still stifled the Tigers triple-option offense with five stops for a loss and no rushing yards for the second half, and also sacked quarterback Gabriel Mckenzie twice.
The Tigers built a 14-3 lead behind some sound defensive play and a pair of big runs by BJ Riley, who racked up 85 yards on his first three carries. Stockbridge set the tone early by finding the board less than 20 seconds into the contest as Buford freshman quarterback Aaron McLaughlin was picked off on the Wolves’ first play from scrimmage.
Tigers’ senior defensive back Demaje’ Carter jumped the designed route in the flat, and returned the pick 38 yards into the end zone.
The Wolves controlled the clock, using their three-headed backfield of Turner (87 rush yards), Grant (69 yards) and Derrian Brown during a string of extended drives that marched deep inside Stockbridge territory. Their second possession spanning nine plays burned up over six minutes of the game clock before Grant was stopped for a loss inside Stockbridge’s 33 yard line. The same result occurred on its next possession as a six-minute, 13-play drive to bring the Wolves inside the Tigers 20 came up empty handed.
A swarm of Tigers defenders stuffed Turner on fourth down, and the hosts converted the game’s first turnover on downs into a brief scoring drive.
BJ Riley broke free for a 72-yard run on the Tiger’s second play of the ensuing march, and a late-hit infraction on Buford brought Stockbridge inside the Buford 9. Riley’s two-yard scoring plunge two snaps later gave the Tigers a two-touchdown lead.
Buford’s only score of the half — a 28-yard field goal — was a result of a fumble recovery by Quentin Skinner deep inside Stockbridge territory.
Stockbridge got a 27-yard field goal to tie to game at 17-all with 8:24 left to play.
The Tigers (12-1) miss out on their third-ever trip to the semifinal, despite winning a fourth-straight region title under Whitley.
“Close doesn’t count. ...I’m well beyond morale victories. But coach Ford, who’s in his first year with the program, heck of a job. Great team. They’re big for a reason.”