BUFORD — Out with the old, in with the new as they say.
Buford’s Friday night Class 6A semifinal showdown with Valdosta pitted the state’s two winningest programs during the 20th (Valdosta) and 21st (Buford) centuries.
But the Wolves' old-style power run game and bruising defense were way too much for the Wildcats’ new-fangled spread.
Buford used a 21-point blitz in the opening five minutes to grab the lead and then cruised to a 45-26 win at Tom Riden Stadium. The victory moved the Wolves into their first Class 6A championship game and second straight finals after winning the Class 5A crown in 2019.
Despite the score, it was no contest almost from the outset. Buford got a 76-yard touchdown pass from Dylan Wittke to Jake Pope on its opening play and moments later, Tommy Beuglas snagged a tipped pass from defensive end Josiah Wyatt and raced 67-yards for a score and a 14-0 lead just three minutes in.
After stopping the Wildcats on fourth down at their own 33 on their next possession, Victor Venn capped a quick drive with a 33-yard TD run for a 21-0 lead less than halfway through the first quarter.
Valdosta never recovered.
“It was a big start for us, no doubt,” Buford coach Bryant Appling said. “That opening play, we had it in our script for the first few plays but we didn’t know we were going to do it right away. We felt like it was an opportunity, we needed something big to happen early. We took a chance and it paid off.
“Getting the big play and then the pick was huge in getting that quick momentum.”
They weren’t done there, however. After trading punts, Venn scored his second touchdown on a 13-yard scamper on third down to cap a long drive early in the second quarter. Buford recovered a Wildcats' fumble later in the half and Alejandro Mata’s 34-yard field goal increased the lead to 31-0 by halftime.
Valdosta (7-5) came in averaging 44 points a game in the playoffs behind a quick-strike offense. The Wildcats finally unleashed it in the third quarter. They got a 52-yard TD pass from Amari Jones to Tahj Sanders to open the second half and the pair connected again for a 35-yard scoring pass later in the period.
In between, Venn scored his third touchdown on a 6-yard run after a 48-yard scamper the play before.
Venn, who finished with 134 yards on 12 carries, said the opening play set the tone for the Wolves’ ground attack, which piled up 304 yards for the game.
“That was a big momentum changer and got the whole team fired up and ready to go,” he said. “We had confidence in our line the entire game and they played great. They work hard and do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
The two big TD passes by Jones cut the Buford lead to 38-14 with 4:57 left in the third quarter. But Buford chewed up more than seven minutes on its next drive and then appeared to seal it with Gabe Ervin’s 3-yard TD run with 5:02 left for a 45-14 lead.
Ervin had 94 yards on 21 carries for Buford.
But the Wildcats made it interesting scoring twice in 11 seconds. Jones and Sanders connected for a third time, this time on a 36-yard TD pass and they recovered the ensuing onside kick. Jones then found Aalah Brown on a 46-yard touchdown pass on the next play to trim the lead to 45-26 after a failed 2-point conversion.
Jones, after a rough start, finished 16-of-26 for 290 yards and 4 TDs for Valdosta. Sanders had 8 catches for 148 yards and Brown pulled in 6 catches for 138 yards for the Wildcats.
Buford snuffed out any other comeback thoughts recovering the next onside kick and then running out the final 2:54 for the win.
Now, the Wolves will turn their attention to Lee County, a 35-14 winner over Westlake in the other semifinal. Lee County will be the 10th first-time opponent for Buford in 2020.
“We don’t know much about them other than they’re big, fast, athletic, and well-coached,” Appling said. “But we’ll get started with film this week and go from there. We’re just glad to still be playing and having this opportunity.”
Valdosta.....0.....0....14..12 -- 26
Buford......21....10.....7....7 -- 45
B -- Pope 76 pass from Wittke (Mata kick) 7-0, 11:41
B -- Beuglas 67 INT return (Mata kick) 14-0, 8:55
B -- Venn 33 run (Mata kick) 21-0, 6:30
B -- Venn 13 run (Mata kick) 28-0, 9:11
B -- Mata 34 FG 31-0, 1:53
V -- Sanders 52 pass from A. Jones (Mattis kick) 31-7, 10:51
B -- Venn 6 run (Mata kick) 38-7, 8:04
V -- Sanders 35 pass from A. Jones (Mattis kick) 38-14, 4:57
B -- Ervin 3 run (Mata kick) 45-14, 5:02
V -- Sanders 36 pass from A. Jones (kick failed) 45-20, 3:06
V -- Brown 46 pass from A. Jones (run failed) 45-26, 2:5