For the first time in over a decade, Buford will not play in the state football semifinals.
On a night when cold temperatures, swirling winds and constant rain made for sloppy football, a slow start and special teams errors doomed the No. 2 Wolves in a 23-20 Class 5A quarterfinal loss to Bainbridge to end its season on Friday night in Buford.
Senior running back Derrian Brown rushed for 204 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 30 carries for Buford (10-3), but his heroic offensive effort was not enough to will the team to victory in a game where nothing really seemed to go right for the home team. Bainbridge (8-5), already coming off back-to-back upsets in the previous rounds, took advantage of two blocked kicks — one punt and one field goal attempt — and a Buford miss on a potentially game-tying field goal try late to pull off the shocking victory over the second-ranked Wolves.
With the upset, the Bearcats move on to face Stockbridge in the semifinal next Friday night, while the Wolves' quarterfinal loss is their first since 2006.
“We just kept believing in ourselves,” Bainbridge coach Jeff Littleton said. “The coaches believed in our kids, they believed in the coaches, and we just went back to work. I’m so excited, it’s hard to say right now. Nobody gave us a chance to be right here in this spot except us.”
The first quarter was about as disastrous as it could have possibly been for the Wolves. After losing 22 yards due to a high snap that went over quarterback Aaron McLaughlin’s head, Buford was forced to punt from deep inside its own territory. The kick was blocked through the back of the end zone, giving the Bearcats a 2-0 advantage early.
Following the Buford punt, it only took Bainbridge two offensive plays to go 43 yards and score a touchdown on a 15-yard rush from Caleb McDowell. The Wolves gave the ball up inside their own 10-yard line following another mishandled snap, and three plays later, McDowell got in for his second score in a one-minute span.
Less than four minutes in, Buford trailed 16-0. The Wolves’ defense stepped up from there, but the offense stayed cold, and after 12 minutes of play it had accounted for -32 yards from scrimmage.
The second quarter was an entirely different story.
After exchanging three-and-outs to start things off, Brown and the Buford offense started to heat up. McLaughlin connected with Xyrie Wilson for a 23-yard pickup, and Brown did the rest of the work, taking it in from nine yards out to put the Wolves on the board.
After another quick stop, the Wolves wasted no time in getting the offense going again. Brown took a carry 45 yards from midfield, and McLaughlin took it the rest of the way in on a QB keeper.
“We started off a little iffy, but then we got to where we needed to go,” said Buford linebacker and strong safety Davin Bryant, who recovered a fumble and made a fourth-down tackle that forced a turnover on downs in the game..
The score made it 16-13 in Bainbridge’s favor, but momentum had made a notable shift in the Wolves’ direction. A botched snap on a Bearcat field goal sent the teams into halftime separated by just three points. Bryant said the message from the coaches during the break was a simple one.
“Just keep going,” he said. “Don’t quit. Just keep on going.”
The second half appeared destined to be a high-scoring affair after McDowell returned the opening kick 91 yards for a Bainbridge score. Brown picked up his second touchdown of the game a few plays into Buford’s first drive of the half to cut the Bearcats’ lead to 23-20.
But that would be the end of the scoring for the night, as both defenses locked down while the quarterbacks struggled to complete passes with the rain starting to intensify.
Both squads failed to move the ball much until late in the fourth quarter. Bainbridge drove deep into Buford territory with time ticking down and elected to go for it on fourth down from the Wolves’ 8-yard-line rather than risk a field goal attempt.
But Bryant came through to make a tackle for a loss on Bainbridge’s attempted end around, giving Buford the ball back needing only a field goal to tie things up.
“That’s just practice,” he said. “Like I said before, coach, he prepares us all week. We’ve just got to trust him, trust his scheme and all that. If you buy into his scheme, then good things happen.”
The Wolves managed to drive down the field to get in range to tie the game, but a poor hold following a mishandled snap caused the try to be blocked, giving the ball back to the Bearcats with only two minutes left to play.
Buford did get one more drive after forcing a stop, but it was too little too late for the Wolves, who ended up in fourth-and-18 when McLaughlin was sacked on second down and could not convert on a desperation heave.
“As a whole, this year was a great year,” Bryant said. “We wish that it could’ve ended the way we wanted it to, but it is what it is.”