JEFFERSON — For one of the few times this season for Jefferson, it did not come easy.
The Dragons held off a late rally from Carver-Columbus to win 28-22 at Memorial Stadium Friday night and advance to the Class 4A semifinals. They will travel to face Benedictine next Friday in Savannah.
"We hadn't been taken to the 12th, 13th, 14th round of a fight for a while," Jefferson coach Gene Cathcart said after the game. "I'm proud of us. We found a way. It wasn't pretty."
Jefferson built an early 14-0 lead in the second quarter but Carver refused to go away quietly, cutting the Dragons' lead to one possession three different times over the course of the game. Each time, however, Jefferson had a response.
Late in the first half, after Carver cut the Dragons' lead to 14-6 on a 1-yard touchdown run from running back Jaiden Credle, the Tigers appeared poised to tie the game. With them driving in Jefferson territory and under two minutes to play in the half, quarterback Devin Riles tried a deep pass but was intercepted at the 10-yard line by Jefferson's Hunter Blayton.
Still, it was a one-possession game entering the halftime break. It was a situation the Dragons have not faced much of in 2020 as they dominated their regular season schedule and won their first two playoff games by a combined 100-0 tally.
Cathcart said the coaches brought up last year's state quarterfinal round when Jefferson lost a 2-point heartbreaker at Crisp County to remind the team of what was at stake.
"At halftime, we kind of had that glass-eyed look like we were surprised to be in one of these kinds of games," Cathcart said. "We were able to redirect by saying, hey, all of you guys who were underclassmen last year coming back from Crisp were just one play short. If you were on that bus, wouldn't you take being undefeated and up eight at home to go to the final four? It kind of changed at least the faces a little bit."
In the second half, Jefferson's star Malaki Starks took control on the offensive end, grinding out tough yards in the middle of the Carver defense from the quarterback spot and engineering two key touchdown drives. The first of which was largely done thanks to a 52-yard pass from Starks to Dawson Crawley on a critical third-down late in the third quarter. The play appeared to score, but a late flag near the goal-line made Jefferson take the ball from Carver's 15-yard line. Starks found the end zone four plays later on a 7-yard run on a fourth-and-two.
Once again, Carver would not quit. The Tigers drove the field and scored on a touchdown pass from Riles to William Bonilla. A successful two-point conversion had Carver back within seven.
Riles finished 18-of-34 for 219 yards and two touchdowns passing. Overall, the Tigers racked up 380 yards against an outstanding Jefferson defense.
"He's a warrior," Cathcart said of Riles' performance. "He's the straw that stirs the drink for them. I didn't get to catch him after the game but I told their coaches to please tell him that he's a class kid with great effort and toughness."
A good kickoff return set up Jefferson's offense and Starks delivered again. This time he pulled a Houdini act to reach the end zone on an 8-yard run with 5:00 to play, spinning out of a pileup near the 5-yard-line when he appeared to be stopped in his tracks. Carver would score one more time, but Carter Stephenson recovered their last-ditch onside kick attempt to seal the win.
Cathcart said Starks' runs in the second half were key to the Dragons' win.
"They weren't his usual 15-plus yard runs. These were earned yards," Cathcart said. "Not much he does surprises us. Malaki kind of had to be a prizefighter in the later rounds."
Starks finished with 18 carries for 83 yards and three touchdowns plus 58 yards passing on five attempts.
The Dragons will now go to the state semifinals for the first time since 2016 and the first time in Cathcart's tenure as head coach. Cathcart said he expects another heavyweight battle at Benedictine.
"We don't know a ton about Benedictine. They have outstanding receivers and they do a great job throwing and catching it. This group is writing such a good legacy, but we know it will be a great challenge."