FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — It started as an old-fashioned boxing match that ended with a knockout.
Cherokee Bluff, behind senior running back Jayquan Smith, and a stingy defense, landed punch after punch in the second half to knock out Greater Atlanta Christian 38-17 in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs at Yonah Field Friday.
With the win, the Bears (10-0 Region 7-3A No. 1 seed) advance to the second round of the playoffs next week at home. They'll host Appling County.
Smith put on a show, behind a constant push from the Bears' offensive line, the senior running back delivered the final blow when he took the ball 73 yards for paydirt to seal the win. Marlion Jackson set the drive up when he snagged a Josh Sharpe pass out of the air for an interception on their own 27-yard line.
That was only a small portion of Smith's Derrick Henry-like performance as he ran the ball 34 times for a staggering 289 yards and two more touchdowns. Smith and quarterback Sebastian Irons helped carry the offense. Irons was impressive himself completing 7 of his 11 attempts for 226 yards, including a long 86-yard touchdown pass to Marlion Jackson.
Coach Tommy Jones was all smiles after the game. He was pleased with how his offense kept the Spartans on their toes all night with a balanced attack.
"We recognize that we can't just run the ball, we can't just throw, we gotta be able to do both," he said. "And when we're running the ball effectively, obviously, it really opens up the throw game and I thought we had some big plays in the throw game tonight that kinda got us out of jail a couple of times, which was big."
Senior fullback Brayden Nance added another touchdown from two yards out, while Michael Arbour added a field goal to end the scoring for the Bears.
The defense was a huge part of this win as they had a bend-but-don't break attitude. The Spartans racked up 422 yards of total offense, but only 17 points. That was mostly thanks to the Cherokee Bluff defenders forcing four turnovers in critical situations.
"Our guys did a great job, they've done it all year, they've really rallied in some clutch situations with their backs against the wall, and found a way to either force field goals or just to get off the field and give us the football," Jones said. " And they did it again tonight on two or three occasions."
For Greater Atlanta Christian, the story was missed opportunities but was unable to capitalize. Dropped passes, penalties, and errant throws impacted the outcome for the Spartans.
But they were still able to accumulate yardage, mostly from the arm of senior quarterback Josh Sharpe. He threw for 336 yards and two touchdowns, but also three interceptions. Running back Gannon Hearst was great, running for 84 yards on 12 carries, but GAC had to move away from the run game after going down several scores.
A positive for the Spartans defense was that they were able to keep Bluff from scoring before halftime. With under 30 seconds left on a fourth-and-short in the red zone, Jones decided to take the points and kick the field goal. Michael Arbour trotted out there for the 30-yard attempt, but GAC's Louie Fabec shot through the line to block the kick.
This win sends Cherokee Bluff to the second round of the 3A playoffs where they will face a very talented Appling County team next week.