ATLANTA — Buford had the pedigree, the titles, the experience. But Rome had Knox Kadum.
The 6-foot-2, 175-pound sophomore quarterback, after a shaky start, ran for 125 yards and two touchdowns, including a Houdini-like 18-yard keeper for a score with 1:12 left to clinch a 16-7 Rome victory and the program’s first-ever state title in the Class AAAAA championship game at the Georgia Dome.
Kadum had 113 yards after halftime and turned a 7-3 halftime deficit into a 10-7 lead with an electrifying 28-yard touchdown run on the opening drive of the third quarter. After that, Rome (13-2) turned to its top-rated defense to shut the door.
“You just never know who is going to step up,” said Rome coach John Reid, who was also making his first-ever trip to the finals. “I think we all had a little Dome fever early on. But once we settled down we made some adjustments. Knox got us going in that third quarter.”
It couldn’t have started any better for Buford when junior Anthony Grant took the opening kickoff, darted left, hurdled a pile of players at around the 25, cut right, and then raced the Rome defense to the end zone until being knocked out of bounds at the Rome 1. TD Roof plunged in from the 1 on the next play and just 25 seconds in the Wolves had a stunning 7-0 lead.
“I just knew I had to make a play to get things going,” Grant said.
But that would be the lone offensive highlight for the Wolves (13-2) the rest of the game. Rome held Buford to just 112 total yards, just 61 on the ground, and just one first down after the third quarter.
Buford coach Jess Simpson said they saw exactly what they were expecting from the other Wolves.
“The defenses dominated the game and we knew it was going to be a hard-fought, four quarter battle,” Simpson said. “It was two well-coached teams. People thought our experience might give us an edge but experience is overrated. That was a good football team. Neither team did anything different than what they do.”
After Grant's explosive start, the teams traded punts over the next four possessions as the defenses settled in. Kadum sacked Buford quarterback Mic Roof, who fumbled, and Rome’s Kavien Hicks recovered at the Rome 47.
On the next play, however, Buford’s Chee Anyanwu picked off a Kadum pass and returned it to the 50 on what was the final play of the first quarter.
The offenses continued to struggle into the second quarter before Rome mounted the only real drive of the first half. Rome started at its own 14 with 9:58 left after a Buford punt and got four runs by Jamious Griffin, a pair of Kadum passes, and a Kadum scramble to move to the Buford 7. But Buford’s Mickey McMorris batted down his second pass of the game on a 3rd-and-4 to force a 24-yard Emanual Gonzalez field goal to pull Rome within 7-3 with 3:36 left.
Anyanwu intercepted a second Kadum pass in the waning seconds of the second quarter to thwart a late scoring attempt by Rome as Buford took a 7-3 lead into halftime.
“Chee was great out there tonight,” Simpson said. “He probably didn’t play but 1 1/2-games until the playoffs and he has really come on. In fact, our secondary is young but has really gotten better over the latter part of the season. That was a real positive for us.”
The defenses were everything expected dominating the first half. Rome amassed 129 yards, but 79 came on its one scoring drive. Buford had just 52 total yards, and was held to just 7 yards and no first downs in the second quarter.
Kadum was 4-of-14 for 58 yards and two interceptions and Griffin had just 25 yards rushing for Rome. Roof was 4-for-8 for 31 yards and was sacked twice. Grant was held to just 21 yards and Christian Turner had just 6 yards in the first half.
Kadum and Rome set the tone on the opening drive of the third quarter when he took a keeper around right end for 41 yards before capping the 77-yard, 7-play drive with his 28-yard score barely two minutes into the second half.
After bottling up Kadum in the first half, Simpson said that drive put his Wolves on their heels.
“There were no trick plays. They executed and we had a couple of breakdowns and he took advantage,” Simpson said. “We just had a hard time getting anything going.”
Buford drove into Rome territory on each of its next two drives in the third quarter but both times were stopped just inside the Rome 40 and were forced to punt. The Wolves would not get into Rome territory the rest of the way as the Rome front-seven, led by junior Ja’Quon Griffin, gave up just one first down in the fourth quarter.
Griffin finished with six tackles, two sacks, and two more tackles for loss.
“(Rome’s) front is very talented and they were tough,” Simpson said.
“Our defense has come a long way,” Reid said. “Just 36 months ago when we took over they were giving up 36 points a game. Our guys really played well.”
It was the second consecutive season Buford’s season ended with a loss in the finals. They dropped a 10-0 decision to Cartersville in the Class AAAA finals in 2015.
Buford was making its state-record 10th straight appearance in the state finals. The Wolves also were looking for their 12th overall title.
Rome.......0.....3....7....6 -- 16
Buford......7.....0....0....0 -- 7
BHS -- TD Roof 1 run (Burgos kick) 7-0, 11:35
RHS -- Gonzalez 24 FG 7-3, 3:36
RHS -- Kadum Knox 28 run (Gonzalez kick) 10-7, 9:47
RHS -- Kadum Knox 18 run (kick failed) 16-7, 1:12