BUFORD – From the opening kickoff, this one was over.
Buford (11-1) used a relentless defensive attack, a grinding rushing game and a few on-target passes to roar past Langston Hughes (11-2) 44-15 in the quarterfinals of the Class 6A playoffs at Tom Riden Stadium on Friday.
It's the Wolves' second straight semifinal appearance, first-ever in Class 6A, and 12th time in the past 14 seasons going back to 2007.
Buford coach Bryant Appling was relieved after the game but was also all smiles as he leads the Wolves into another historic accomplishment this season.
"I'm just proud of these kids, all the stuff they've gone through, proud of these coaches and proud of this community," he said. "We've jumped up [classifications] four times since I've been here and each time we're like, 'oh man, I don't know.' But each year we find a way to keep winning ... keep playing. The kids are grinding and are not scared of anything right now."
The Panthers' start pretty much summed up their night, a fumbled kickoff out of bounds at the 4-yard line, followed by a fumble to go three and out on its first possession.
Then there was the stingy Buford defense, boosted by an aggressive rush by lineman Brett Rogers, River Wilson, Matthew Alexander, Josiah White and Malik Cunningham, that held the Panthers to less than 50 yards rushing, including seven drops for losses, two interceptions and a huge goal-line stand as the first-half clock expired.
"I can't say enough of those guys," Buford coach Bryant Appling said. "You know you lose Jackson Powell last year, and he was our hedgehog up there, getting pressure and stopping the run. These guys were younger behind him but played well last year. We knew what River Wilson, Matthew Alexander, Malik Cunningham could do, Brett Rogers is playing really well, Josiah White has played his tail off this year."
But despite the in-your-face pressure, Hughes did show some life a few times in the second half. Freshman quarterback Air Noland provided a spark when he hit CJ Lockhart on a 70-yard bomb, and later, on a halfback pass that went for 57 yards to the Wolves’ 5-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. But Buford’s Jake Brittle ended that quickly with an interception on the next play. The Panthers added a late touchdown – Noland hit Brandon Castro on an 11-yard touchdown pass. Terrance Love added the two-point try.
As for the Buford offense, it didn’t need a whole lot of yards to be productive. Led by Gabe Ervin Jr with 82 yards rushing and Victor Venn with 85 yards rushing, the Wolves were efficient. But it took them a couple of series to get the legs churning. On the third series of the first quarter, the Wolves put together a 10-play, 79-yard drive, all on the ground, with a mixture of Venn, Ervin, Jake Pope and Isaiah Bond. Ervin capped the drive with a 2-yard run to start the offensive flurry and give the Wolves a 7-0.
"We felt like we could run the ball on them. We felt we could throw the ball some as well," Appling said. "They were big but didn't move sideways very well. They were just big ... stuff the middle. Once we felt like we could spread them out a little, we could run the ball. I think our offense was balance like it has been over the last seven or eight weeks."
From there, the Wolves scored on a 33-yard touchdown pass from Ashton Daniels, who was 2 of 2 for 59 yards, to Tommy Beuglas, a 5-yard run by Ervin, and Alejandro Mata added a 35-yard field goal to take a 23-0 halftime lead.
In the second half, it was much of the same. Venn added a 22-yard touchdown run on the first drive of the half with 10:08 left in the third quarter. CJ Clinkscales scored on an 11-yard run and Eli Parks tacked on a 4-yard score after Boyd Farmer’s interception a play earlier.
With the win, Buford will play Valdosta at home in the semifinals. The Wildcats beat Carrollton 35-16 on Friday.
It sets up a semifinal matchup between two of the most storied programs in Georgia High School football history. Buford (12) and Valdosta (22) have a combined 34 state championships and 66 region championships. Valdosta (7-4) hasn't won a title since 2016 and has reached the semifinals for the first time since that year under new head coach Rush Propst.
"It's a good feeling to be playing," Appling said. "It's definitely a great feeling and an honor to play those guys with as many championships as they have. I've got great respect for Coach Propst. I know they're going to be prepared and come up here ready to whoop our tail. We've got to be prepared to give it back to them and play a great game next week to win."