DAWSONVILLE — All week most of the Dawson County players believed they could knock off powerhouse and sixth-ranked Sandy Creek in the opening round of the Class 3A playoffs.
But three minutes in, the Patriots' dynamic-duo of junior quarterback Geimere Latimer, who led Class 3A in passing, and senior receiver Miles Thornton gave the Tigers more than enough reasons to doubt themselves. The pair connected on an all-too-easy 88-yard touchdown pass for a quick 7-0 lead.
“I had some doubts at the start of the game and they hit that big play like that. I was like, 'oh (man)',” junior defensive back Kenny Nelson said.
From then on, however, the Tigers’ belief turned into reality as they used a 19-point second-quarter explosion to take the lead and then held on in the second half for a 36-27 victory at Tigers Stadium.
And Nelson? He would provide two of the biggest plays of the game picking off Latimer twice and knocking down a Latimer pass on fourth down in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
“After that big play we just kind of pulled back and regrouped (as a defense),” Nelson said. “I was able to get those two interceptions and then the offense got two big touchdowns later to give us the lead.”
The Tigers answered the Patriots' big play with a 15-play, 70-yard drive that ate up over 9 minutes and ended with a 40-yard Dom LeBlanc field goal to cut the lead to 7-3.
Seconds later, the Tigers got the first major break. Latimer was forced to scramble and fumbled. A Patriots offensive lineman scooped it up in the end zone and avoided a safety by trying to lateral it forward. However, the Tigers’ Matt Bennett scooped up the loose ball at the Sandy Creek 6 and ran it in for an apparent -- and wild -- touchdown. After the refs conferred, the score stood and Dawson County led 10-7.
The Tiger defense struck again on the next Patriots play as Nelson picked off Latimer for the first time at the Tigers' 48.
LeBlanc added a 25-yard field goal for a 13-7 lead to cap the ensuing drive that stalled at the Sandy Creek 18.
The Patriots used their big-play ability again to reclaim the lead when Latimer and Thornton connected on a 28-yard pass to the Dawson 25 and then they hooked up again four plays later on a 14-yard touchdown pass for a 14-13 lead with 3:59 left.
That would be the Patriots' final lead.
A Sandy Creek holding penalty on an incomplete third-down pass kept the next Dawson drive alive at the Patriots' 42. The drive looked over at the 24 on a 41-yard LeBlanc field goal that fell short. But a Dawson County penalty nullified the play giving them a second chance.
Dawson coach Sid Maxwell called timeout and decided instead to go for it on 4th-and-8. Senior Zach Holtzclaw found Braedon Hubbard on a 29-yard touchdown catch with 28 seconds left in the half for a 19-14 lead.
While the only offensive touchdown in the first half for the Tigers came on a Holtzclaw TD pass, it was the run game that controlled the action. They ran 23 times for 70 yards which helped them to 18:22 in time of possession to just 5:38 for the Patriots.
Four of Sandy Creek’s five drives were for 58 seconds or less.
“The plan was to control the ball and the clock and the offense did a great job of executing,” Maxwell said. “The defense has just gotten better and better and was just lights out all night except for a couple of plays.”
The Tigers took the second-half kickoff and used five Conley Dyer runs, including a 46-yard romp, to get to the Patriots 3. Holtzclaw’s first pass of the third quarter to Kade Moledor, a 3-yard TD pass, gave the Tigers a 26-14 lead, and also established a new school record in passing yards. Holtzclaw finished 11-of-16 for 142 yards and 2 TDs to move past Coey Watson (7,007 yards) for the all-time lead at 7,070 yards for the moment.
“It was a little bittersweet because I grew up watching Coey,” Holtzclaw said. “But if it had to be broken I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with any other guys. It makes it even better since it helped us get to the second round.”
Nelson then struck again for Dawson County picking off a second Latimer pass that would eventually lead to another LeBlanc field goal of 31-yards and a 29-14 lead.
But the Patriots got right back in it when Kaleb Cost rambled 51 yards down the right sideline to pull them within 29-20 after a failed 2-point pass attempt with 58 seconds left in the third quarter.
After a quick three-and-out for Dawson County, Latimer ripped off a 56-yard touchdown run making four Tigers miss to pull within 29-27 with 9:32 left.
But Dawson answered with a five-minute drive capped by a 17-yard TD pass from Holtzclaw to Hubbard again for a 36-27 lead with 4:28 left. The Tigers' offense scored on 6-of-8 possessions when they mattered most.
Dyer finished with 115 yards on 18 carries and the Tigers pounded out 163 yards on the ground. They dominated the time of possession, 35:34 to 12:26 for the game.
The Tigers defense sealed it, stopping the Patriots one last time with under 30 seconds left in the game.
Dawson County next will take on defending Class 3A state champion Pierce County next week in the second round in Blackshear.
Nelson said it didn't matter who was next.
“Whoever it is, we’ll be gunning for them. I don’t think this team has peaked yet, either,” he said.
Holtzclaw summed up one of the biggest upsets in the state on Friday night that few would have predicted.
“We always have confidence in ourselves and we have that Dawsonville heart in us,” he said.
Sandy Creek.....7.....7.....6......7 -- 27
Dawson Co.......0....19...10.....7 -- 36
S -- Thornton 88 pass from Latimer (Apo kick) 7-0, 5:16
D -- LeBlanc 40 FG 7-3, 11:49
D -- Bennett 6 fumble return (Dylan Thompson kick) 10-7, 11:26
D -- LeBlanc 35 FG 13-7, 7:44
S -- Thornton 14 pass from Latimer (Apo kick) 14-13, 3:59
D -- Hubbard 29 pass from Holtzclaw (pass failed) 19-14, 0:28
D -- Moledor 3 pass from Holtzclaw (Dylan Thompson kick) 26-14, 8:21
D -- LeBlanc 31 FG 29-14, 3;34
S -- Cost 51 run (pass failed) 29-20, 0:52
S -- Latimer 56 run (Apo kick) 29-27, 9:32
D -- Hubbard 17 pass from Holtzclaw (Dylan Thompson kick) 36-27, 4:28