ATLANTA — In a game where you had No. 1 offenses, No. 1 defenses, and 5-star talent, it was a senior punter that stole the show Tuesday in the Class 4A state championship game.
Marist’s Charlie Flemming kept Jefferson’s vaunted running game bottled up the entire second half as the War Eagles outscored the Dragons 16-0 in the second half to capture the crown with a 30-14 victory at Georgia State Stadium.
Flemming’s boots kept Jefferson pinned inside the 20 on all five of its second-half drives with starts at the 8, 20, 9, 8 and 20. Factor that in with a War Eagles defense that has been the state’s best in 2020, it was a bad recipe for the Dragons.
“(Flemming) was phenomenal,” Jefferson coach Gene Cathcart said afterward. “That changed our play calls and some of the things we could do at that spot on the field. He changed the momentum for sure.”
Flemming’s first blast of the third quarter, a 57-yarder, put the Dragons at their own 8, and then Kam Robinson was tripped up in the end zone for a 9-yard loss on a failed pitch play to give Marist a 16-14 lead.
A 46-yard boot by Flemming put Jefferson at its 9 late in the third quarter and then a botched exchange by Malaki Starks and Kolton Jones resulted in a fumble that the War Eagles’ Tyler Hare recovered and returned to the Jefferson 2. Three plays later Ian Otten scored on a 6-yard run to push the lead to 23-14 with just 10:58 left in the game.
The Marist defense, meanwhile, bottled up the Jefferson offense the entire second half. After yielding 127 yards rushing in the second quarter alone, the War Eagles held the Dragons to minus-2 yards in the third quarter and just 24 yards in the second half.
Jefferson’s biggest play over the final 24 minutes was a 27-yard run by Starks after Marist had built its big lead.
“Their linebackers are so big and fast and they’re almost never out of position,” Cathcart said. “We just couldn’t get anything going in the second half. We kept fighting and I love our group.
“We are blessed to have gotten this far. The guys are hurting right now but they had a tremendous year and have nothing to really hold their heads about.”
Jefferson (14-1) was looking for its first state title since winning the 2012 Class 2A championship.
But the Dragons could not have endured a worse start. Robinson fielded the opening kickoff at the sideline and stepped out at the 7 and a penalty pushed it back to the 3. After a quick 3-and-out and a short punt, the War Eagles needed just three plays with George Parker scoring on a 3-yard run to cap a 12-yard drive.
The Dragons again were forced to punt and Marist quarterback Champ Davis capped a 57-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown run for a shocking 14-0 lead in less than eight minutes.
But Jefferson finally found some momentum late in the first quarter. A 12-yard run on third down by Starks and then a 27-yard pass to Jordan Perry moved the Dragons to the Marist 24. Six plays later Perry capped the drive with a 9-yard scoring run to pull Jefferson within 14-7.
The Jefferson defense again solved the War Eagles option attack forcing another punt. The offense went back to work with Robinson ripping off a huge 67-yard run to the Marist 7 and Perry finished the quick drive with a 4-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 14 with 5:23 left in the half.
The Dragons defense gave the offense one last chance with 1:15 left and Starks moved them down to the Marist 27 after an electrifying 41-yard run. But Starks was picked off on the next play inside the 20 with 36 seconds left in the half and the War Eagles took a knee to go into the locker room.
“That was probably the worst start I’ve ever seen us have,” Cathcart said. “But we battled back. We went into the locker room very optimistic but when you have to start inside your 10 every time it’s tough, especially against a group that good.”
Jefferson outgained Marist 209-199 for the game, including 182 to 161 on the ground. But the Marist defense also produced 61 yards in losses and forced two turnovers. The Jefferson defense, which had forced 23 on the season coming in, could not get one in the finals.
Marist..........14.....0.....2....14 -- 30
Jefferson.......0....14.....0.....0 -- 14
M -- Parker 3 run (Jones kick) 7-0, 8:45
M -- C. Davis 12 run (Jones kick) 14-0, 4:09
J -- Perry 9 run (Botts kick) 14-7, 11:22
J -- Perry 4 run (Botts kick) 14-14, 5:23
M -- Safety 16-14, 7:06
M -- Otten 6 run (Jones kick) 23-14, 10:58
M -- Mannelly 18 run (Jones kick) 30-14, 5:45