Monday October 18th, 2021 6:12AM

3rd round previews: Powerhouse group of four look to continue playoff push

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter

And then there were four...

There are four teams left in the Georgia High School Association playoffs from the AccessWDUN coverage area. But what a powerhouse group it is.

Buford, the defending Class 5A state champion, is in Class 6A now and really is just now beginning to show its true potential -- yea, that’s scary for the rest of them -- while Jefferson in Class 4A has been steamrolling everyone in its path this season behind Malaki Starks and a punishing ground game.

Rabun County has looked unstoppable in Class 2A behind the state’s most lethal passing combo in QB Gunnar Stockton and wide receiver Adriel Clark, who both are setting records.

And Commerce in Class A Public has displayed an uncanny second half flare that has the Tigers into the quarterfinals for the fifth time in seven seasons.

All four face tough challenges this week in the quarterfinals but thanks to the GHSA universal coin flip, all four will be at home tonight.

For a look at all of the weekend's contests involving area teams, simply scroll down. And be sure to check back with AccessWDUN's Friday Game Night throughout the night for score updates and game stories and video highlights. You can also check for scores and highlights on our Twitter feed: @FridayGameNight

(Games listed in alphabetical order of visiting team)
There are some absolute powerhouses that make up the quarterfinals in this classification. Three programs that have won the Class 6A title since 2015 (Allatoona, Valdosta, Lee County) and last year’s Class 5A champion Buford all are into the Elite 8. Not to mention perennial powers Carrollton and Westlake. But it also features a pair of newcomers in River Ridge and Hughes, who are both making their first-ever Elite 8 appearances in program history. Still, no matter who advances, the semifinals figure to be power-packed. ... Other than Class 4A, where all eight region champions advanced, this may be the most loaded field still left. Six region champs and two No. 2 seeds made it through. ... Five of the top 8 offenses and 5 of the top 6 defenses are still alive into the quarterfinal round. ... Buford vs. Hughes is the only matchup that involves a pair of top 6 offenses going up against a pair of top 5 defenses. Buford is No. 1 in defense while the Panthers are 5th in defense. But, in all eight second round games in Class 6A, the team with the higher-rated defense won, regardless of offensive ranking. ... But the best unit-vs.-unit matchup may be in the Westlake-Allatoona showdown where Westlake’s top-ranked offense will match up with Allatoona’s No. 2-ranked defense.

-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. 
-- WHERE: Tom Riden Stadium, Buford
-- LANGSTON HUGHES (11-1): No. 2 seed from Region 4; defeated Region 2 champion Glynn Academy 35-0 on the road in the second round
-- BUFORD (10-1): No. 1 seed from Region 8; defeated Cambridge 42-7 in the second round
-- NOTABLE: First-ever meeting between the two programs. ... Hughes is into the quarterfinals for the first time and also set a school-record for wins in a season. Buford is in the Elite 8 for the 21st straight season. The Wolves are 17-3 in the quarterfinals since 2000. ... Both teams still carry rankings and the Wolves have won their last 6 matchups when both teams were ranked. Their last lost to a ranked team was to Archer in 2018. The Panthers are 1-5 in their last six games vs. ranked teams. ... The Panthers are very balanced averaging 186 yards passing and 176 yards rushing and are 5th in offense averaging 32.0 ppg. Dual QBs Air Noland and Xavier Smith both have passed for more than 1,100 yards and Smith is also the team’s leading rusher (796 yards). They have three rushers with over 483 yards on the season. ... But the Wolves offer the toughest defense in 6A allowing just 5.9 ppg. They have allowed just 10 points or less in 10 straight games, including five shutouts, which ties the 2015 team and is one off the program-record of 11 straight games allowing 10 or less set by the 2003 state title team. ... The Buford ground game set a season-high last week with 438 yards rushing, paced by Gabe Ervin (160 yards) and Victor Venn (152 yards). Buford is 2nd in 6A in scoring (40.6 ppg) while the Panthers are 5th in defense giving up just 11.2 ppg. 

If you’re the home team in this classification this week, be thankful. This has been the toughest classification to get a road win in nine years. In the first round, the home team went 15-1 with No. 3 seed North Oconee out of Region 8-4A getting the only road victory. In the second round, the home team was a perfect 8-0 for a 23-1 record for the hosts in the first two rounds, far and away the best in any of the eight GHSA classifications. ... Which also means that all eight region champs advanced into the quarterfinals. It is the first time all 8 region champs in a classification in a playoff season have made it to the Elite 8 since Class 3A, which housed Gainesville that year, did it in 2011. ... Jefferson vs. Carver-Columbus is the only matchup that involves a pair of top 6 offenses going up against a pair of top 5 defenses. Jefferson is No. 1 in offense while the Tigers are 6th in defense. ... Offense seems to be driving Class 4A overall. All eight teams left are in the top 14 in offense. Four of the top 5 defenses advanced but three of the teams (Bainbridge, 21st; Perry, 24th; Benedictine, 37th) came into the playoffs in the bottom half in 4A in defense. Benedictine and Bainbridge both are in the top 5 in offense. ... The Marist, Jefferson, and surprisingly, Bainbrdige defenses all have been impregnable in the playoffs pitching consecutive shutouts in the first two rounds. ... Jefferson has scored 100 points in the first two rounds (50.0 ppg) to lead Class 4A offenses.

-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. 
-- WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Jefferson
-- RADIO: WDUN 102.9 FM
-- CARVER-COLUMBUS (10-0): No. 1 seed from Region 2; defeated Baldwin 8-0 in the second round
-- JEFFERSON (12-0): No. 1 seed from Region 8; defeated Hapeville Charter 35-0 in the second round
-- NOTABLE: First-ever meeting between the two programs. ... This Jefferson team is starting to climb the program charts. The 2020 squad is the 4th team to post an undefeated regular season in school history; it’s the 4th team in school history to win 12 or more games; just the 2nd group in school history to win back-back region titles; and, they are tied for the 2nd-longest win streak in school history (16, 2012-2013; 12--2014 and 2020). ... However, Jefferson has not advanced past the quarterfinals since 2016. ... The Tigers have posted back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 2012-13. ... It should be a tremendous matchup all over the field no matter who has the ball. The Dragons are the top scoring team in 4A (461, 46.9 ppg) while the Tigers are 6th in defense (99, 9.9 ppg). Jefferson is No. 2 in defense (79, 7.9 ppg) while Carver is 3rd in offense (386, 38.6 ppg). ... Jefferson Jr. QB Malaki Starks (1,053 yards rushing, 17 TD) went over the 1,000-yard mark last week. However, more than 90 percent of his production has come without playing a single down in the 2nd half of most games on offense. He is a 5-star recruit on defense. ... The 8 points by the Tigers last week tied for the fewest points scored in a playoff victory in their history. They beat Thomson 8-0 in the 2nd round of the 2006 Class 3A playoffs. The Carver defense was the real catalyst getting a turnover to set up their only score and then stopping Baldwin twice inside the Carver 5 in the fourth quarter. ... The Dragons have scored 100 points in their first two playoff games in 2020, the most in program history for the opening two rounds.

All four games in the 2A quarterfinals are first-time matchups. ... Offense is definitely the name of the game in Class 2A. Six of the top seven offenses -- led by Rabun County (577, 48.0 ppg) which is the highest scoring team in the entire state, all classifications -- pushed their teams into the Elite 8. Only three of the top 8 defenses have survived, with none of the top four defenses remaining. ... The best single matchup in the quarterfinal round in 2A will be in Blue Ridge, where Fannin County, which posted just its second-ever 10-win season, takes on Fitzgerald in the only battle of top 8 offenses and defenses. The Purple Hurricanes are no strangers to long road trips to the mountains. They knocked off Rabun County two years ago in Tiger in the Elite 8 round. ... Region 5 is the only region with two teams left, Callaway and Bremen, and they would meet in the finals if they continue to advance. Region 6 is the only team not to push a team into the quarterfinals. Regions 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, and 8 each have one team left.

-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. 
-- WHERE: Frank Snyder Stadium, Tiger
-- BLECKLEY COUNTY (8-3): No. 4 seed from Region 3; defeated Early County 41-7 in the second round
-- RABUN COUNTY (12-0): No. 1 seed from Region 8; defeated Model 35-0 in the second round
-- NOTABLE: First-ever meeting between the two programs. ... Bleckley County is the only No. 4 seed left in the state in any classification. It’s just the Royals’ second-ever trip to the quarterfinals (2006) and they have never advanced past the Elite 8 round. The 8 wins for the Royals are the most in a season since 2013 (9) and just the 6th time in history they have won 8 or more games. ... Meanwhile, Rabun County has averaged 11.6 wins over its last six seasons and they are into the Elite 8 for the sixth straight season. ... The obvious key will be if the Royals, who come in 24th in defense in Class 2A (213, 19.3 ppg) can slow down the state’s best offense (577, 48.0 ppg). The Wildcats have the No. 1 Jr. QB prospect in the country in Gunnar Stockton (2,842 yards, 43 TD, 1 INT) and Sr. WR Adriel Clark is having a breakout season. Clark (63 rec., 1,393 yards) has tied the state record for most TD catches in a season (27). Stockton now has 120 TD passes in his career, putting him 3rd with Marietta's Bailey Harrison on the all-time state list behind Trevor Lawrence (161) and former Gainesville QB Deshaun Watson (155). ... Bleckley is 7th in offense in 2A (390, 35.4 ppg) and the 390 points is a new school-record for the Royals, beating last year’s previous-best offense (340 points). They are paced by So. RB Jahvon Butler (1,092 yards, 8 TD) and Sr. RB Chuckie Stephens (731 yards, 14 TD) but have a balanced attack averaging 213 yards rushing and 165 yards passing. ... Rabun County is just 13th in 2A in defense allowing 15.0 ppg on the season. And defense has been the issue for the Wildcats at this stage of the playoffs. In their previous five seasons to reach the quarterfinals, they allowed just 70 points (7.0 ppg) in the first two rounds but gave up 146 points (29.2 ppg) in the quarterfinal rounds.

Two regions have dominated the playoffs in this classification. Regions 3 and 8 both pushed three teams into the quarterfinals. The fun part will be that all three teams from each region matchup this week. We’ll see which is the best after Friday night. ... Six of the top 11 offensive teams advanced. Brooks County (512, 42.6 ppg) is the highest unit left at 3rd in the classification. Metter is 4th (484, 40.3 ppg) and Commerce is 6th (36.5 ppg). Metter is the top defensive team in A Public (69 point, 5.7 ppg). Washington-Wilkes (103, 9.3 ppg) is 2nd and will take on Brooks County as the only matchup where both teams have top 10 offensive and defensive units. ... Region 8 has a chance to start a new trend. Clinch County, which takes on Lincoln County, and defending state champion Irwin County, which travels to Commerce, have won 4 of the last 5 Class A Public state titles combined. With wins, Lincoln and Commerce can usher a new sheriff in Class A Public 

-- WHEN: 8 p.m. 
-- WHERE: Tiger Stadium, Commerce
-- IRWIN COUNTY (9-3): Region 2 No. 1 seed, ranked 5th in Class A Public; defeated Wilcox County 14-0 in the second round
-- COMMERCE (11-1): Region 8 No. 1 seed; ranked 4th in Class A Public; defeated Gordon Lee 28-14 in the second round
-- NOTABLE: Irwin County leads series 2-0. Both meetings have been in the playoffs and in Ocilla, with the Indians winning 28-7 in the 2014 semifinals and 26-23 in the 2018 quarterfinals. ... Irwin, the defending Class 2A state champion, is tough in the playoffs going 6-1 in the quarterfinal round since 2013. However, the Indians are just 1-1 vs. ranked teams in 2020. ... Commerce also is just 1-1 vs. ranked teams in 2020 and is a rare home underdog coming into this one. ... But Commerce is tough to beat at Tiger Stadium. They are 20-2, including 2-0 in the playoffs, at home since 2014. ... The Irwin defense, which was 7th in A Public coming into the 2nd round, shut out the highest scoring team last week in Wilcox County (547, 48.0 ppg) who had averaged 52.0 ppg in its last four games. The Indians held Wilcox to minus-22 yards rushing and have only allowed 89 points (89 ppg) over their past 10 games. ... Commerce is 6th in offense averaging 36.5 ppg ... The Tigers have been a 2nd half team. In their last four games, they outscored their opponents 49-7 after halftime with one come-from-behind win and twice breaking ties to pull away for wins. ... A Commerce win would give the Tigers their third semifinal berth in coach Michael Brown’s eight seasons.

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