THOMSON — For all the talk of two grinding rushing attacks, it was Thomson's ability through the air that brought Jefferson's playoff march to an end on Friday.
The Bulldogs completed just five passes -- but every single one of them proved back-breaking for the Dragons, averaging 23.4 yards per catch to spark touchdowns and counter Jefferson's otherwise stout run defense.
The Bulldogs completed just one touchdown pass -- on a halfback option -- but two second quarter completions helped Thomson to a lead it never surrendered en route to a 27-6 Class AAAA semifinal victory.
"I felt like we stopped their foundation, and they had to go to their bag of tricks -- but to their credit they hit them," said Dragons coach Ben Hall, whose team allowed 242 yards rushing but very few long runs from a Bulldogs program that came in averaging almost 320 yards on the ground. "And we were in position to stop a lot of those but just couldn't make the play. And then we had to settle for field goals on offense."
Jefferson twice moved inside the Bulldogs' 10-yard line but penalties on each occasion forced Jefferson to settle for Hayden Kilgore field goals. His first gave the Dragons a 3-0 lead. But the Bulldogs responded with two touchdowns to take a 13-3 halftime advantage that stretched to 20-3 early in the third quarter.
The outcome halted Jefferson's deepest playoff run since 2012.
"I'm proud of the way the guys battled," Hall said. "We have a lot of momentum thanks to this team and this group of seniors, and we'll be back next year."
After having their hopes for a home semifinal dashed by GHSA restrictions earlier in the week, the Dragons (12-2) entered the contest fired up to show that not only could they repay the Bulldogs (14-0) for a regular season defeat, but that they could do so away from Memorial Stadium. And after a defensive first quarter it seemed as though Jefferson was on its way to doing so when it produced the longest drive of the contest to that point, marching 81 yards to the Bulldogs 6-yard line. But a holding penalty on second down stunted the Dragons' momentum and eventually yielded a 22-yard field goal from Kilgore.
It proved the high tide for the visitors, however.
On the ensuing drive, Thomson quarterback Mills Ridings hooked up with Trey Parker to set up the go-ahead touchdown from running back Mike Thomas. Ridings lofted a 29-yard pass that Parker plucked out of the air at the 1. It was not their final connection of the half, however, and Ridings and Parker -- who caught three passes for 100 yards -- burned the Dragons again just before the interval.
This time Ridings absorbed a crushing blow while throwing up a 39-yard pass for Parker. Yet the quarterback was unfazed and pulled off a perfectly-executed fake handoff on the very next play, keeping the ball and sprinting untouched for a 15-yard score and a 13-3 lead (Zack Boobas blocked the point after attempt).
Thomson continued its aerial explosiveness after the interval -- even if it came in unorthodox fashion. This time Thomas took a handoff before planting his feet and finding Parker streaking open through the middle for a 20-3 lead.
Jefferson refused to yield, however, and again constructed an impressive drive, as Colby Wood -- who finished with a game-high 107 yards on 16 carries -- ripped off big chunks of yardage to move the Dragons to the Bulldogs 5. But another penalty -- this time a personal foul -- pushed Jefferson all the way back to the 19 and eventually necessitated a 30-yard kick from Kilgore.
Jefferson's defense also responded, forcing a fourth and five at the Thomson 49. But after initially lining up in punt formation, the Bulldogs went for the throat, as Marcus Cade took the snap only to loft a perfect 25-yard pass to continue the Thomson drive -- a play that paved the way for a two-yard touchdown run from Bubba Murray that put the contest out of reach with 10:08 left to play.
Jefferson ripped off some big runs on its final two possessions, but could not manufacture a scoring play. And though the Dragons finished with 213 yards rushing it was not enough to offset the Bulldogs' explosive plays.
Thomas led Thomson with 96 yards rushing on 20 carries, while Murray added 77 yards on 11 carries, as the Bulldogs notched their first championship game appearance since 2002.
JEFFERSON....0......3....3....0 -- 6
THOMSON.......0....13....7....7 -- 27
JHS -- Kilgore 22 field goal, 9:33, 3-0
THS -- Thomas 1 run (Gergen kick) 6:15, 3-7
THS -- Ridings 15 run (kick blocked) :49, 3-13
THS -- Parker 32 pass from Thomas (Gergen kick) 8:55, 3-20
JHS -- Kilgore 30 field goal, 4:17, 6-20
THS -- Murray 2 run (Gergen kick) 10:08, 6-27