BUFORD -- Unable to play for the Region 7-AAA title, Buford football wanted to make a statement on Friday night.
Facing newly-crowned 7-AAA champs North Hall, Buford pounced for a 24-0 halftime lead before pulling away for a 45-16 victory at Tom Riden Stadium.
The victory clinched the No. 2 seed for third-ranked Buford (7-3, 5-2 Region 7-AAA) -- which fell out of the 7-AAA title race after forfeiting two wins earlier in the season -- and set the Wolves and Trojans on their way to the first round of the Class AAA playoffs next week.
"The kids proved a point and showed it out there on the field tonight," Buford coach Jess Simpson said. "I'm so proud of the way they played, and the way they fought, and the way they prepared this week. We've got a great group of seniors, who have helped lead this team through a lot of adversity.
"We beat a good football team tonight. North Hall's a very good football team, and we came out and played very well."
Indeed, the Wolves set the tone from their opening possession, marching 75 yards to grab a 7-0 lead -- thanks in large part to Taylor Mitchell's 48-yard scoring strike to Thomas Wilson.
The touchdown toss was part of an impressive passing performance for Buford, which completed 10 of 17 attempts for 197 yards -- quarterbacks Mitchell and Montgomery VanGorder spreading the ball around to seven different receivers.
"We came out wanting to push the ball downfield, because we knew they'd have a lot of guys up in the box, looking to stop the run," Mitchell said. "Being able to pass the ball like that is huge. It just adds another dimension to our offense."
Not that the Wolves abandoned their normally-potent ground attack. Buford still rushed for 215 yards, including a two-yard touchdown run from Zavior Hoxie (on fourth-and-2) and a 1-yard scoring blast from VanGorder -- both in the second quarter and part of a 17-0 push from Buford before halftime. Wilson also added a nine-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Hoxie led the group, missing injured starter Dontravious Wison, with 72 yards on 13 carries, Joshua Thomas added 70 yards.
North Hall's defense battled hard in the trenches throughout, making Buford earn every yard, but the Trojans offense could do little to gain any momentum, managing just 18 yards and one first down before the half. Yet ninth-ranked North Hall (8-2, 6-1) composed itself at the break, coming back out to rush for 214 yards in the second half -- including two touchdown runs from quarterback Bradley Brown (12 carries, 68 yards).
Brown's scores pumped plenty of life into the Trojans' sidelines and supporters, as the Trojans pulled within 24-13 late in the third quarter. But Buford was not to be denied, outscoring North Hall 21-3 over the final 13 minutes.
"You've got to play Buford tough for 48 minutes, and we didn't do that tonight," Trojans coach Bob Christmas said.
North Hall finished with three turnovers for the game, including two key turnovers in the first half. And while the Trojans held firm after the first turnover, the second -- coming after a Buford punt -- led to VanGorder's touchdown and a 21-0 lead. Matthew Bonadies also tacked on a 27-yard field goal as the clock expired to give the Wolves a 24-0 advantage at the interval.
North Hall charged out of the locker room, however, more than tripling their offensive production on their first drive of the third quarter -- including a 52-yard run from TJ Tate (16 carries, 114 yards) to set up a three-yard scoring plunge from Brown, who fumbled the snap but recovered the ball and dove into the end zone. The Wolves blocked the PAT to hold a 24-6 lead, but the Trojans maintained their momentum, taking advantage of a Buford fumble at the North Hall 25 to chip away at the deficit.
Brown again provided the scoring touch, this time ripping off a 29-yard scoring run with 4:42 left in the quarter to pull within 24-13.
Buford wasn't going to let the contest slip away, however, and the Wolves regained control with a 72-yard drive -- again going to the air for the score, as Mitchell hit Tre' Neal for a 36-yard touchdown and a 31-13 lead with 37 seconds left in the third quarter. The score helped Buford close out the contest, tacking on two more touchdowns -- including a nine-yard scoring run from Wilson and a 50-yard interception return from Korie Rogers, both in the fourth quarter.
"We wanted to prove we were the team in this region, and we feel like we did that tonight," said Mitchell, who finished 9 of 14 for 178 yards and two scores.
Buford finished with 412 yards of offense and is brimming with confidence heading into next week's first round playoff date against Cedar Grove, the No. 3 seed from Region 6-AAA.
North Hall, meanwhile, will play host to fourth-seeded Woodward Academy, looking to bounce back from their first loss since September.
North Hall....0....0...13....3 -- 16
Buford.........7...17....7...14 -- 45
BUF -- T. Wilson 45 pass from Mitchell (Bonadies kick) 9:53, 7-0
BUF -- Hoxie 1 run (Bonadies kick) 14-0
BUF -- VanGorder 1 run (Bonadies kick) 1:47, 21-0
BUF -- Bonadies 27 field goal, :00, 24-0
NHHS -- Brown 3 run (kick blocked) 8:44, 24-6
NHHS -- Brown 29 run (Cruz kick) 4:42, 24-13
BUF -- Neal 36 pass from Mitchell (Bonadies kick) :37, 31-13
NHHS -- Cruz 32 field goal, 9:50, 31-16
BUF -- T. Wilson 9 run (Bonadies kick) 5:37, 38-16
BUF -- Rogers 50 yard interception return (Bonadies kick) 2:39, 45-16