ATLANTA — Bryant Appling doesn't want it to always be this way. But if it must, he sure is glad Ashton Daniels is on his side.
The last two seasons, Buford needed overtime to claim state titles. Both times, Daniels provided the game-winning play and then they relied on the defense to hold on.
“We really don’t want to make it tough on the fans,” Appling said after another heart-stopping finish in a state title game on Friday against Langston Hughes for the Class 6A crown.
For the third consecutive season Buford's title hopes came down to a final drive and all three times Daniels, a senior soon to be headed to Stanford, has come through in the clutch.
This time, Daniels connected on a 34-yard touchdown pass with Tobi Olawole with just 2:55 left in the game for what would be the eventual game winner. Then, the defense resisted just enough to force a 35-yard field goal attempt by Langston Hughes senior Alan Gonzalez, who had not attempted a field goal all season, with just 4 seconds left.
Another senior, Josiah Wyatt, sealed the come-from-behind win getting a hand on the kick as the Wolves escaped with a 21-20 thriller to capture the Class 6A state title at Center Parc Stadium.
“I wish (Ashton) had a red-shirt year,” Appling joked. “I don’t have him for next year but I wish we did. He’s brought us back three times in a row.”
Daniels was almost at a loss for words.
“I don’t know, man. I don’t know. We always find some kind of magic to pull it out,” Daniels said when asked to explain their penchant for late-game heroics. “It’s truly a blessing (to be able to do this three times in a row). I wouldn’t pick another group of guys to do it with. I’ll never forget these guys.”
The underdog Panthers (13-2) could not have asked for a better start. They held Buford (14-1) on a quick 3-and-out to open the game and then methodically moved down the field against the powerful Wolves defense. After three big runs to get to the Buford 33, quarterback Air Noland found a streaking Armani Tookes open for a 33-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead to cap their opening drive.
The Wolves were poised to answer right back as Daniels moved them to the Hughes 16 with passes of 22 yards to Davis Peek, 12 yards to KJ Bolden, and 10 yards to Isaiah Bond. But disaster struck when Panthers' cornerback Lataj Wright broke coverage and picked off Daniels at the goal line and returned it to the 50.
The Hughes offense went right back to work, mainly on the ground this time. A 25-yard run by Jamarion Harris got the Panthers a 1st-and-goal at the Buford 8 and three plays later Antonio Martin plunged in from the 5 for a stunning 14-0 lead with 10:15 left in the half.
“Their running back ran hard and he’s a load. I’m glad we won’t have to see him again,” Appling said.
The Buford defense finally got a stop when Wyatt sacked Noland, eventually forcing a 17-yard punt late in the half. Daniels then got them into Panthers territory on passes of 19 and 11 yards, and a key third down screen pass to Ryan McKinnis to the Hughes 5. CJ Clinckscales then took a pitch around the left end for a 5-yard score on the next play with just 4 seconds left in the half to cut the lead to 14-7.
“We didn’t really make any adjustments on offense but on defense we tried to take away their inside gaps (after their first couple of drives),” Appling said.
In the third quarter, the Wolves picked up where they left off stopping the Panthers on three quick plays and using a balanced attack on offense. Daniels connected on passes of 24 yards to Jake Pope and 17 yards to Bond to set up his own 1-yard sneak to tie the game at 14 midway through the third.
But the Panthers answered that with an 80-yard drive, capped by a 30-yard touchdown run from Martin for a 20-14 lead as they missed the extra point. That loomed large in the end. The 20 points was the most against the Buford defense since it gave up 27 to Class 7A North Cobb in the season-opener.
The teams traded punts deep into the fourth before Daniels tied the game with his pass to Olawole and Alejandro Mata gave them the lead with his successful extra point.
But Hughes had one last gasp. With the aid of two Buford pass interference penalties and a 21-yard pass from Noland to Jelani Thurman, the Panthers moved to the Buford 18 with 7 seconds left. They attempted one pass into the end zone before lining up for the potential game-winning field goal.
But Gonzalez had not attempted a field goal all season and after a Buford timeout to try and ice him, many figured the Panthers would put the potential state title in Noland’s hands.
“We knew we could stop the pass and you can’t run from that spot so we felt we had them where we wanted them when they tried to kick the field goal,” Applying said.
Wyatt said he got three fingers on the kick, which fell well short of the goal posts as time expired.
“Ashton did have the big play again tonight but all these seniors had a part in this,” Appling said. “I just can’t say enough about our kids. It was a great game.”
The win also gave Appling something no other coach has ever accomplished. He has now guided the Wolves to three state titles in his first three years as a head coach, a new Georgia record.
He declined to comment, only saying, “it’s really all about the kids. They made this happen.”
NOTEBOOK: The final stats were as close as the final score. Hughes ran 50 plays for 290 yards and Buford ran 49 plays for 285 total yards. ... Hughes had 19 first downs to Buford’s 17. ... The TOP was separated by just 86 seconds. ... Martin was nearly unstoppable rushing for 157 yards, a season-high for a back vs. Buford this season, and 2 TDs. ... However, the Buford secondary, despite a limited Pope, did a yeoman’s job. The Panthers Big 3 of Tookes, Thurman, and Rodney Shelley came in averaging nearly 8 catches and over 126 yards as a group. They were held to 5 catches for just 88 yards collectively. Noland, who came in averaging 176 yards/game was just 8-of-13 for 114 yards and was sacked 3 times. ... The Buford running game was held to just 106 yards. Daniels finished 14-of-20 for 179 yards and 1 TD and 1 INT.