CARROLLTON — Like a world-class chess master, Buford coach Bryant Appling countered every Carrollton move with near-precision Friday night in the two teams’ Class 5A quarterfinal clash at Grisham Stadium.
Offensive adjustments. Defensive adjustments. Pulling out little-used players to step in at just the right time.
However, it won’t be for any of that that Appling and the Wolves will remembered for after their thrilling 24-21 win over the Trojans on a 28-yard Hayden Olsen field goal as time expired.
Nope. Instead, it will be a pair of almost desperation-like fourth-down calls by Appling to just keep the Wolves in the game long enough to pull off the stunning victory.
The first was a 4th-and-3 decision at their own 28 late in the second quarter trailing 14-7. After Appling called a timeout, Buford caught the Carrollton defense stacking the line and Victor Venn blasted through for an electrifying, and improbable, 72-yard TD run to tie the game.
The second was a fake punt call on 4th-and-6 at the Wolves 36 late in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 21. Olsen, who had never thrown a varsity pass, found a wide-open Justice Johnson for a 7-yard pass to keep the eventual game-winning drive alive.
‘Riverboat Gambler’ was being bandied about by nearly everyone who congratulated Appling afterwards.
“I don’t know about that. But those were two plays we practice a lot so we felt good about them,” he said. “Just great execution on both plays, just like we practice. The fake had actually been there a couple of times in the game but we decided to pull it out at just the right time.”
“I had never done it in a game but when I heard the call I just tried to focus on making the throw,” Olsen said. “That actually helped get some of the nerves out for that final kick.”
That play set another unexpected call when backup quarterback Ashton Daniels somehow, as he was being swarmed by a sea of Carrollton pass rushers, found a wide-open Nate Norys for a 27-yard gain to the Trojans 31 with just under two minutes left. Venn then rumbled 23 yards to the Carrollton 11 with 20 remaining to set up Olsen’s game-winner.
The win pushed Buford (12-1) into the semifinals for the first time since 2017. The Wolves will hit the road for a third consecutive time next week traveling to Jones County, a 42-14 winner over Griffin.
The win also marked one of the reasons Appling, a longtime Wolves’ assistant, was promoted to take over for John Ford after Buford had failed to get out of the quarterfinals last season.
“Coach Appling has brought a mentality back to Buford football that had been missing the last few years,” said Olsen, a senior. “We’re glad he’s our coach this year.”
It was an even more masterful job considering Buford was without its top two running backs in Elijah Turner and Gabe Ervin, and starting quarterback Jarvis Evans left late in the third quarter with an injury.
“It means a lot to us (to get back to the semifinals),” Appling said. “The kids know that it really is the next man up and that it could be the next play. They have just done a tremendous job getting prepared each week. They earned this with all their hard work.”
Most of the jam-packed Grisham Stadium (estimated at 11,000-plus by Carrollton officials) got what they came for and expected: a hard-nosed defensive slugfest.
After both defenses stuffed the offenses on quick three-and-outs to open the game, the Trojans struck quickly on their second drive as Mecose Todd broke a tackle at the line and then outraced the entire Wolves’ defense for a 73-yard touchdown run the first play for a 7-0 lead.
The Wolves tried to answer right back as Venn slashed his way for a 42-yard run to the Trojans’ 38 on their next play. But the drive stalled and a 48-yard field goal by Hayden Olsen drifted wide left.
Buford got the first turnover when T Lee picked off a Morris pass at the Buford 47 on the Trojans' next possession. But a sack of Evans after a penalty forced another Buford punt.
But Buford finally got the big break when defensive tackle Matthew Alexander recovered a fumble after a strip-sack of Morris at the Trojans’ 13. One play later Evans connected with Julian Lewis in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown to tie the game at 7 with 11:08 left in the half.
Carrollton followed that with the best of the half for either offense when Todd plunged in for a 1-yard TD run to cap an 11-play, 82-yard drive, all on the ground, for a 14-7 lead.
The Trojans were poised to take control moments later forcing the Wolves into a fourth down at their own 27 and a certain punt. But
Both teams would then trade punts over the next four drives combined as they went to the intermission deadlocked at 14.
Carrollton started strong in the third quarter. The Trojans forced another Buford punt after a pair of quick first-down runs by Venn. Then Myles Morris capped a 74-yard drive with a 1-yard TD run to give the Trojans a 21-14 lead midway through the period.
Buford answered that drive with an 80-yard, 14-play drive, capped by a 4-yard TD run from Venn.
Neither Todd nor Venn were expected to be the workhorses. Todd was not even listed on the depth chart after the last two games. He finished with 184 yards and three scores to pace the Carrollton offense. Venn, third on the depth chart, finished with a season-high 189 yards and two TDs.
The two offenses were a combined 7-for-22 for 41 yards passing for the game.
C -- Todd 73 run (Dominguez kick) 7-0, 8:40
B -- Lewis 13 pass from Evans (Olsen kick) 7-7, 11:08
C -- Todd 1 run (Dominguez kick) 14-7, 7:21
B -- Venn 63 run (Olsen kick) 14-14, 5:08
C -- Morris 1 run (Dominguez kick) 21-14, 7:29
B -- Venn 4 run (Olsen kick) 21-21, 11:54
B -- Olsen 28 FG 24-21, 0:00