BUFORD, Ga. — It came down to an onside kick recovery and a massive fourth down conversion that doomed top-ranked Buford Friday at Tom Riden Stadium.
Walton cashed those in for touchdowns on both drives to take a two-score lead and held on to shock the three-time defending champion Wolves, 42-35, in the second round of the Class 7A playoffs.
"They made the ones they needed," Buford coach Bryant Appling said. "We had a hard time keeping them behind the sticks tonight. When they had to have it, they made plays."
The Raiders were 4-for-4 on fourth down, converted third down situations 7 out of 13 tries and either onside kicked or pooched kicked all night.
The Wolves also were plagued by penalties in key situations. None more significant than perhaps the most important play of the game: a Raider 4th-down-and-6 conversion midway through the 4th quarter.
Walton lined up to punt and, instead, faked it. The pass was incomplete; play over, right? Nope, Buford was hit with another yellow flag, pass interference, but Walton's offensive line bailed the Wloves out, trying to get down the field too fast. The illegal man downfield penalty offset the Buford foul, forcing the two to replay the down. Cue the sirens.
Walton wasn't going to punt this time, sending quarterback Jeremy Hecklinski (21-for-41, 322 yards pass, 2 TD, 2 INT) and his offense trotted onto the field. The Raiders were playing a game of cat and mouse and won, on a 44-yard strike to Ayden Jackson (5-84 yards, TD) down the middle to go up, the second time in the half, by two scores, 42-28, with 6:17 to go.
"In the end, we've got to not do the things that they're [referees] calling in the end," Appling said about the penalties. "It just kept those guys on the field. It gave those guys the opportunities they didn't have."
Most could say that drive was the eventual dagger in the Wolves' hopes of advancing to the quarterfinals for the 23rd year in a row, first in Class 7A. It ultimately was the play that determined the playoff fate for Buford.
But the onside kick early in the fourth quarter could be pointed to as a massive momentum boost to the Raiders, maybe a dagger, too. It ended with a 5-yard Makari Bodiford (29-85 yards rushing, 2 TD) touchdown and a 35-21 lead.
"They kicked it to the side that we knew they were probably going to kick to. I don't know if it went 10 yards or not. It was close. But in the end, the bottom line is you've got to make plays. You've got to make the plays that it takes to win games."
Still, they had chances, and it looked OK for the Wolves in the first half, leading 14-13 at the break off a pair of scores from Justice Haynes, a 9-yard catch and a 29-yard run. Haynes finished the night with 177 yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns.
They even opened the second half with a nine-play scoring drive. Dylan Wittke (15-for-30, 163 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) hit Sam Harkness on a flare-out for a 20-yard TD with 8:53 to go and a 21-13 lead.
Then the wheels started to wobble for the Wolves.
Walton scored on their next four possessions; a 1-yard Hecklinksi run, Wyatt Sonderman 71-yard catch, a Bodiford 5-yard run, and a 44-yard pass to Jackson. The Wolves No. 1 defense gave up 406 yards of offense, and Walton's 42 points were the most scored all season on the Wolves.
"We didn't step up to the plate," Appling said about his defense. "Way too many open guys in the secondary. We had depth issues, as far as how far away we are on certain down and distances that really, really hurt us."
The Wolves cut the lead with two more scores, a Haynes 18-yard run with 9:36 to go and a late TD pass from Wittke to Tyshun White with just under a minute to go. Buford's onside kick was unsuccessful.
"We knew the higher and higher you go in classifications that these games get harder earlier," Appling said. "It's not just going to be a quarterfinal and semifinal game, but you got to do what you're supposed to do almost every game. This is the end of our season, but it ain't the end for us. Our program is strong, and I think our program will come out of this better."