Four Northeast Georgia teams advanced to the state quarterfinals Friday night, while four more saw their seasons come to an end. Along the way were dominating performances, a second-half rally by Commerce and a heartbreaking loss for Cherokee Bluff.
Here are five things we learned in the second round of the playoffs.
1. Buford's balance continues to overwhelm opponents
This ain't your daddy's Buford, although the scoreboards are looking about the same. The Wolves' defense is still dominating, with only one of their last 10 opponents even scoring double digits against them, and the running game is still brutal with Gabe Ervin, Jr. and Victor Venn providing a two-headed monster in the backfield. So, what's changed? Buford now has a truly balanced offensive attack. Not only do they feature a pair of outstanding running backs, but two quarterbacks who are each providing their own flairs to the offense. Junior Ashton Daniels is the more traditional quarterback of the two, providing a steady hand in the passing game while sophomore Dylan Wittke lends his own talents to the running game and can be a threat throwing the ball as well. The balance has led to 10 straight wins and continued in a 42-7 second-round win over Cambridge Friday night. Some used to say if you have two quarterbacks, you have none, but Buford (10-1) looks like they have all the quarterbacks they need to make another state title run, this time in Class 6A.
2. Jefferson continues to dominate, now looks to exercise demons
It's hard to find a flaw with this year's Jefferson Dragons. All they've done in their 10 games so far is beat every opponent by at least 14 points, shut down high-powered offenses and run their triple-option attack to near perfection, racking up an average of more than 45 points per game. Coach Gene Cathcart's team has spent the entire season ranked no lower than second in the state in Class 4A and are on pace to set school records in both scoring offense and scoring defense averages. With a talent-filled roster led by the likes of Kam Robinson, Jordan Perry and, of course, 5-star rated athlete Malaki Starks, it's no wonder Jefferson (10-0) has been and still is considered one of the prime state championship contenders in the 4A bracket. The dominance continued Friday with a 35-0 second round win over Hapeville. Now, the Dragons will need to exercise some playoff demons if they hope to keep those championship aspirations. Jefferson has lost four of their last five state quarterfinal appearances dating back to 2013. Two of those losses were agonizing, last-second defeats, including last year's 2-point loss at Crisp County. This time, they'll be at home against Carver, Columbus and this time they look more than up to the task.
3. Rabun County's defense is rounding into championship form
Speaking of playoff demons, Rabun County has some of their own that they're looking to dispense of. The Wildcats are back in the Class 2A quarterfinals for the sixth consecutive season, but much like Jefferson, it's been an unfriendly round for them. They've also lost four of their last five trips to this round. Their Achilles' heel has often been their defense and, more specifically, their defense against opposing running games. Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, Rabun County (11-1) looks like they may have a unit that can stop some of those struggles. They've allowed just seven total points through their first two playoff games, including a shutout in the second round against Model Friday. Both of their playoff opponents were teams predicated on their ground games, with Haralson County featuring a pair of 1,000-yard rushers and Model running back Joseph Wallace entering the Rabun game on the heels of a 192-yard first-round performance. The offense has continued to be a steady force with quarterback Gunner Stockton and receiver Adriel Clark continuing to put up video-game-like numbers, but it's the Wildcats defense that may be the key to that elusive state championship.
4. Commerce's second-half heroics continue in the second round
Commerce's last month has felt like a broken record. On Friday night against Gordon Lee in the second round of the Class 1A-Public playoffs, the Tigers once again found themselves in a defensive battle, this time tied 14-14 at halftime. Once again, the Commerce defense shut down their opponent in the second half, their offense took advantage, and once again the Tigers won by double digits, this time 28-14. It was the exact same script that led them to two wins over Washington-Wilkes and Lincoln County and the Region 8-A Public championship at the end of the regular season. Coach Michael Brown will take that script playing on loop for the rest of the season if he can get it. Championship teams can overcome adversity and impose their wills when the game hangs in the balance. Commerce (11-1) has clearly shown an ability to do just that against strong opposition. Those Washington-Wilkes and Lincoln County teams they pulled the same feat against are also in the 1A-Public quarterfinals, but the toughest opposition for Commerce will likely come this Friday as they host the defending state champions Irwin County. Hopefully a second-half surge is not required, but this time of year, style points don't matter. Win by any means necessary.
5. Cherokee Bluff loss illustrates the cost of mistakes in the postseason
Speaking of signature second-half surges, it looked like Cherokee Bluff was on their way to performing one of their own in their second-round matchup with Carver, Atlanta Friday night. After falling down 23-6 in the first half, the Bears used their stifling defense and grinding run game to scrap back into the game, drawing within 23-21 early in the 4th quarter on a Jayquan Smith touchdown run. However, that would be as close as they came. Mistakes and missed opportunities were ultimately what ended a magical season in just the program's third year. The mistake most will point to was a botched snap and hold on the potential game-winning field goal attempt with less than two minutes to play, however there were plenty more that added up to cost Cherokee Bluff (10-2) a chance to play one more game at Yonah Field in the quarterfinals. Another mistake on the extra point after the Bears' first touchdown of the game left a point off the board. They also attempted a two-point conversion after a touchdown on the final play of the first half but missed. They committed two turnovers, including one on a last-gasp drive at the end of the game, and turned the ball over on downs deep in Carver territory in the first quarter, squandering another prime scoring opportunity. Coaches routinely say that you can't make mistakes this time of year and expect to win. In case anybody just thought that was coach-speak, take a look back at Cherokee Bluff's loss Friday night.
STATE PLAYOFFS 2nd ROUND SCORES FOR Dec. 4
(Games at higher seeded team)
Buford 42, Cambridge 7
Marist 24, Flowery Branch 0
Jefferson 35, Hapeville Charter 0
Oconee County 42, Dawson County 7
Carver-Atlanta 23, Cherokee Bluff 21
Greater Atlanta Christian 33, North Hall 0
Rabun County 35, Model 0
CLASS A PUBLIC
Commerce 28, Gordon Lee 14