WATKINSVILLE — For almost three quarters Friday, Sept. 27, Winder-Barrow kept Oconee County’s explosive offense largely at bay and found itself clinging to a six-point lead late in the third quarter on the strength of an inspired defensive effort.
But in a flash, Warrior senior quarterback Max Johnson showed why he’s committed to LSU and is considered one of the top prospects in the country. The 6-foot-4 left-hander hit Ben Noland on a quick pass, and Noland did the rest of the work, scooting down the left side for a 49-yard touchdown reception that put the Warriors ahead with 36 seconds left in the period and wound up lifting them to a 21-13 win over the upset-minded Bulldoggs on homecoming night at Oconee County.
“That one’s hard to take,” said Winder-Barrow coach Ed Dudley, whose team dropped to 1-3 in its final non-region contest before beginning GHSA Region 8-AAAAAA play Oct. 4 at home against crosstown rival Apalachee. “We really needed to get touchdowns, not field goals in the red zone. But I’m extremely proud of our players. We had a great week of preparation, came over here and played our hearts out. It’s just disappointing for them.”
The momentous turn of events that gave the Warriors the lead for good was set up by Oconee County’s defense making a stand by holding Winder-Barrow to a field goal after the Bulldoggs had first-and-goal from the Warriors’ 5 following a 46-yard pass from Jhaydon Sullivan to Brett Landis. The Bulldoggs got it down to the 4 but then lost yardage on consecutive plays and had to settle for Harlin Brown’s 26-yard field goal that boosted Winder-Barrow’s lead to 13-7 with 2:03 left in the third.
The Warriors (5-1) needed just four plays to go 80 yards and grab the lead instead of trailing by three.
“Momentum is a real thing,” Dudley said. “It’s palpable in high school football and we needed to close that deal out and get in the end zone. We just didn’t.”
Winder-Barrow moved the ball to its 40 on the ensuing possession, but Sullivan’s third-down pass was picked off by Da’Shawn Elder and returned to the Bulldogg 47 with 9:50 remaining in the game. Oconee County — aided by a pass interference penalty on the first snap of the drive — needed just five plays to move 47 yards, capped by Darius Norman’s 15-yard touchdown run to push the lead to 21-13 with 6:41 to go.
The Bulldoggs went three-and-out on their next drive, were forced to punt and never got the ball back. The Warriors used seven running plays to drain the final 4:57 clock with Johnson’s 1-yard sneak on fourth down at the Bulldogg 35 sealing it.
Winder-Barrow got a huge break early in the game. The Bulldoggs’ opening drive was cut short when Elder intercepted his first of two passes on the night and nearly returned it 40 yards for a touchdown. But while he was stretching to try to get in, he fumbled the ball out of the end zone, resulting in a touchback and giving Winder-Barrow a fresh set of downs at its 20.
The Bulldoggs marched 50 yards in six plays before the drive stalled, but Brown boomed a 47-yard field goal to give them a 3-0 lead with 7:25 left in the first quarter.
Oconee County answered with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that culminated with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Noland that put the Warriors in front 7-3 with 2:15 to go in the quarter.
Winder-Barrow eventually got the lead back following a big defensive play. Johnson, who finished 8-of-12 for 124 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, completed a pass to Noland for what would have been a first down in Winder-Barrow territory. But safety Cameron Huff stripped the ball on the play, and it wound up in the hands of senior Zack Price, who returned it to the Winder-Barrow 45 with 4:45 left in the half.
The Bulldoggs covered 55 yards in nine plays to retake the advantage. After a holding penalty, Sullivan aired it out to Landis, who made a diving grab for a 46-yard play down to the Warrior 14. Sullivan punched it in from a yard out a few plays later to make it 10-7 with 33 seconds to go.
The Bulldoggs’ senior quarterback finished 7-of-11 passing for 111 yards and the two interceptions while running for 42 yards and the score on 16 carries. J.C. Green had 62 yards on 16 carries for the Bulldoggs, who frequently found themselves in third-and-long situations.
“It wasn’t my favorite situation to be in, to be honest,” Dudley said.
Winder-Barrow’s defense continued to play well early in the third quarter, forcing a three-and-out to start the quarter and getting prime field position at the Warrior 32 after Andrew Lewis partially blocked a punt. However, the Bulldoggs came away with no points after Brown’s 48-yard field goal try missed wide left.
Lewis came up with another big play later in the quarter, intercepting a Johnson pass and returning it 17 yards to the Oconee County 49, which led to Brown’s second field goal — and the Bulldoggs’ final points — of the night.
“I think our defense is coming around,” Dudley said. “They played extremely well tonight against a great offense. We had a couple guys get hurt tonight and that and a lack of depth hurt us in the secondary in the second half. I wish we could have pitched a shutout and come out with a win; it just didn’t happen for us.
“Now we’ve got to refocus and get ready to go play a good Apalachee team this coming week.”
W 3 7 3 0 — 13
O 7 0 7 7 — 21
W—Harlin Brown 47 FG
O—Ben Noland 15 pass from Max Johnson (Ben Johnson kick)
W—Jhaydon Sullivan 1 run (Brown kick)
W—Brown 26 FG
O—Noland 49 pass from Max Johnson (Ben Johnson kick)
O—Darius Norman 15 run (Ben Johnson kick)