BUFORD, Ga. — There appears to be nothing Buford coach Bryant Appling is scared of. Not even a fake punt on his 9-yard line, which would terrify most mortal coaches.
“That’s something Jess Simpson told me a long time ago, don’t be scared to call anything at any time,” Appling explained to the media after his Wolves held off Mill Creek 39-27 in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in front of a record crowd of 10,143 at Tom Riden Stadium on Friday.
The win gave No. 1 Buford (7-0, 2-0 Region 8-7A) the early lead in Region 8-7A and dropped the second-ranked Hawks (6-1, 1-1 Region 8-7A) into a four-way tie for second with Collins Hill, Dacula, and Mountain View.
The fake punt was more than a gutsy call, as it may have been the key sequence to keeping the Hawks at bay. Late in the first half, the Wolves were facing a 4th-and-3 at the 9 with the prospect of giving the ball back to Mill Creek, who had just quickly marched down the field to cut the lead to 25-14.
Mill Creek had seized the momentum with Alabama-commit Caleb Downs’ 7-yard TD run, and the defense was poised to get the ball back for its high-flying offense with just over a minute left.
“They had all the momentum in the world, they had way too much time and too many timeouts,” Appling said. “We felt like we had better personnel on the field at that moment, so we decided to go for it and were able to push it out. That was a big play for us.”
Another Alabama-commit, Justice Haynes, who finished with 221 yards on 20 carries, converted the risky call.
“When they called that, we just said, ‘let’s go!’ and we ran with it,” Haynes said.
There were many questions and anticipated matchups all over the field coming into this one. Perhaps the most talked about was a suspect Wolves’ passing attack. Any doubts were quickly erased on Buford's opening drive.
The Wolves induced a 15-yard pass interference penalty on their first attempt; quarterback Dylan Wittke completed a 13-yard pass to Jordan Allen, and Haynes converted a 25-yard halfback pass to Alijah Williams to the Mill Creek 1. Wittke slammed in for a touchdown on the next play, and Ryan McKinnis added a 2-point run for an 8-0 lead just three minutes in.
“In games like this, you have to pull out all the stops,” Appling said about plays like the halfback pass. “You can’t go in thinking you’re going to bully everybody. We really haven’t bullied people that much over the last few years. Most of our games have been like this one.”
Mill Creek was ready to answer back quickly, moving to the Buford 8 on its first drive, but Hayden Clark was sacked on 3rd-and-short, setting up a 29-yard field goal attempt from Jacob Ulrich. But Williams blocked the kick.
Buford added a 30-yard field goal from Mario Ventura for an 11-0 lead following a Jadon Perlotte interception of Clark at the Hawks 18 on their next possession.
But a short Buford kickoff helped the Hawks finally break through. Cam Robinson escaped a host of Buford tacklers on a 3rd-and-3 from the Hawks 45 for a 19-yard gain, and two plays later, Clark connected with Makhail Wood for a 36-yard TD pass to pull the Hawks within 11-6 after a missed PAT.
However, the Buford offense kept the pressure on, with a 22-yard TD pass from Wittke to Eli McElwaney to cap an 80-yard drive in just five plays to push the lead to 18-6. The Wolves appeared to blow it open just moments later when Jordan Allen took a Mill Creek punt 85 yards for a score and a 25-6 lead with still 6:32 left in the half.
That’s when Mill Creek began to make its moves until Appling’s stunning fake punt call.
The Hawks got the ball first to start the second half with a chance to continue to cut into the lead. But after a quick 3-and-out, Buford instead extended its lead with an electrifying 56-yard touchdown run from Haynes for a 32-14 lead.
Mill Creek did respond with a 71-yard drive, capped by a 5-yard TD pass from Clark to Brendon Jenkins to trim the lead to 32-20 late in the third quarter. Following a muffed punt by Allen with just over a minute left in the third, Downs scored on a 12-yard run to get them within 32-27 with 11:00 minutes left.
But Buford answered again as Haynes capped a 71-yard drive, aided by 30 yards in Mill Creek penalties, with a 15-yard touchdown run to increase the lead to 39-27. Buford would run more than six minutes off the clock on its next drive to essentially quell any Mill Creek comeback.
“This means a lot for us,” Haynes said. “It’s a rivalry game, and there was a lot of (social media) chatter this week. We just ignored it and tried to come out and play hard.
“We felt like we needed to keep scoring because their offense was averaging 46 points a game. We hadn’t been playing that well (on offense), and we had a chip on our shoulder a little bit. We just need to keep grinding and working and not get complacent.”
The Wolves defense rated third in Class 7A and held the Hawks No. 1 offense to 326 yards, more than 100 below their season average. Clark finished 17-of-34 for 176 yards with 2 TDs and 1 INT. Robinson came in averaging 119 yards/game but was held to just 48 on 8 carries.
Wittke was just 7-of-16 for 124 yards passing but found six different receivers to help keep the Mill Creek defense on its heels.
Buford next will play host to long-time rival Dacula. Mill Creek will play host Collins Hill.
Mill Creek................0.....14.....6.....7 -- 27
Buford....................11.....14....7.....7 -- 39
B -- Wittke 1 run (McKinnis run) 8-0, 9:01
B -- Ventura 30 FG 11-0, 0:16
M -- Wood 36 pass from Clark (kick failed) 11-6, 10:45
B -- McElwaney 22 pass from Wittke (Ventura kick) 18-6, 7:52
B -- Allen 85 punt return (Ventura kick) 25-6, 6:32
M -- Downs 7 run (Wood pass from Clark) 25-14, 1:46
B -- Haynes 56 run (Ventura kick) 32-14, 7:57
M -- Jenkins 5 pass from Clark (run failed) 32-20, 3:18
M- Downs 12 run (Ulrich kick) 32-27, 11:00
B -- Haynes 15 run (Ventura kick) 39-27, 8:49