Buford went back to the basics in the second half against Washington County Friday night, pounding out a 35-19 victory in the Georgia Dome to capture its second straight Class AAA state title
Trailing at halftime for the second consecutive playoff game, the Wolves (15-0) attempted just two passes in the second half and used their massive offensive line to take control with their vaunted ground game.
Thomas Wilson paved the way with 118 of Buford's 228 yards rushing and two touchdowns, with most of the damage coming after halftime. The senior running back said the plan was simple coming out of the locker room at halftime.
Wilson's 28-yard touchdown run on Buford's first play of the third quarter set the tone giving the Wolves their first lead of the game, 14-13, and one they would not relinquish.
"The coaches made adjustments and said we were going to go with the running game. We have a great offensive line and as they go, we go," Wilson said. "(Washington County) came out strong, but it's a four-quarter game. Our line just dominated them in the second half. That's the way we like playing."
While the Wolves only scored once in the third quarter, their physical play turned the tide after watching Washington County (13-1) jump out to a 13-0 lead in the first half.
It was almost a carbon-copy of their semifinal game with Callaway when they fell behind twice and trailed 14-7 at halftime. But the Wolves would not let either lead stand.
"The last two third quarters were probably the best quarters we've played all season," Buford coach Jess Simpson said. "The kids responded to the adjustments we wanted to make and went out made the plays when they needed too. I can't say enough about them."
While the offense was going back to its bread-and-butter, the defense answered the call against Washington County junior quarterback A. J. Gray and senior wide receiver D.J. Sanders.
The duo had struck for several big plays in the first half, including a 41-yard touchdown pass for the first score of the game. But the Wolves sacked Gray on consecutive plays to snuff out one drive and limited Sanders to no catches in the third quarter.
If the third quarter turned the tide, then the fourth quarter was the tidal wave for the Golden Hawks. Buford scored 21 points in the final period to blow the game open. But it didn't come without some tense moments.
Joshua Thomas's 18-yard TD run on the first play of the fourth quarter, capping a 10-play, 65-yard drive on all running plays, pushed the lead to 21-13.
Sensing the momentum change, the Golden Hawks took a gamble. Following Thomas's run, the Golden Hawks went for it on 4th-and-1 at their own 41 on their next possession but Buford senior linebacker Korie Rogers stuffed Gray at the line for no gain to kill the drive.
They never recovered.
"It wasn't my play to make but the coaches always tell us to make a play if you see it. I saw the hole open and I just filled it and got a good hit on him. That was a big play," Rogers said.
It would take just two plays after Rogers' play for the Wolves to put the game out of reach. Wilson added a 35-yard score 46 seconds later for an insurmountable 28-13 lead.
Rogers said watching the offense at work in the second half was what they like to see.
"We knew the offensive line needed to take advantage of them and they did... Buford football," Rogers said. "It gives (the defense) a lot of confidence when we see them run the ball like that."
Washington County had one last gasp, however. Gray and Sanders connected on a 65-yard TD pass with 6:40 left in the game to cut the lead to 28-19 but instead of an extra point they went for a two-point conversion. The Buford defense rose up again to stop the run and kept it a two-score lead.
"Our defense has been outstanding all season and they made the big plays when they needed too," Simpson said. "They've done it all year."
The Wolves sealed the game on their next possession driving 78-yards in 8-plays -- seven rushes -- capped by a 5-yard Thomas scoring run for a 35-19 lead with 1:40 left.
Buford's 21 fourth-quarter points were more than the entire first half combined. In fact, the late rally helped Buford to set a single season scoring record with 707 total points.
Both defenses dominated the first quarter. The Golden Hawks forced a Taylor Mitchell fumble on the fifth play of the game sacking the senior quarterback. Gray picked up the bouncing ball but was tripped up by a teammate at the Buford 21 to stop what would have been a sure return for a touchdown.
The Wolves defense, however, answered the challenge, stopping Washington County on 4th-and-3 at the Buford 14 to hold on downs.
The two teams traded punts and Buford got its first big play of the game on a 45-yard pass play to Tre Neal to the Golden Hawks' 27. But Washington County stiffened and the Wolves' Matt Bonadies missed a 47-yard field goal attempt.
It was the offenses' turn in the second quarter and both units came alive. Washington County struck first with a 41-yard touchdown pass from Gray to Sanders on the first play of the quarter for a 7-0 lead.
The two teams traded punts again, and the Golden Hawks pushed their lead to 13-0 on an 86-yard punt return by Melvin Hill, his second punt return for a touchdown in as many weeks.
Needing to get something going before the half, the Buford offense finally cracked the Golden Hawks' defense. Mitchell connected with Wilson on a 24-yard strike to the Washington County 45 and then finished off the 75-yard drive with a 43-yard pass to Isaac Nauta, who bounced off one defender and then outraced two more to the end zone with just 13 seconds left in the half to cut the lead to 13-7.
Thomas finished with 92 yards on 15 carries for Buford while Nauta had three receptions for 84 yards.
The Buford defense held Washington County to just 42 rushing yards. Gray had 16 yards on 15 carries but was 16-of-30 for 230 yards and two touchdowns passing. Sanders finished with seven catches for 160 yards. Hill had 140 all-purpose yards for the Golden Hawks.
NOTES: Friday's title win was the ninth in 13 seasons for Buford. The Wolves are now 10-4 all-time in title games, going back to the 1954 season. ... The Golden Hawks were looking for their first title since winning three in four seasons from 1994-97. ... The 19 points for the Golden Hawks was their lowest output since a 28-14 loss to Thomson in 2012 and just the third time since 2011 they have been held to less than 20 points. ... Washington County came into the game as the top scoring offense in Class AAA during the season averaging 49.9 points per game. ... Buford, however, was allowing just 6.6 points per game on defense.
Washington Co.....0....13....0....6 -- 19
Buford....................0....7....7....21 -- 35
WC -- Sanders 41 pass from Gray (May kick) 7-0, 11:53
WC -- Hill 86 punt return (kick failed) 13-0, 6:31
BUF -- Nauta 43 pass from Mitchell (Bonadies kick) 13-7, 0:13
BUF -- T. Wilson 28 run (Bonadies kick) 14-13, 10:15
BUF --J. Thomas 18 run (Bonadies kick) 21-13, 11:55
BUF -- T. Wilson 35 run (Bonadies kick) 28-13, 8:09
WC -- Sanders 65 pass from Gray (run failed) 28-19, 6:40
BUF -- J. Thomas 5 run (Bonadies kick) 35-19, 1:40