In a battle of teams content to run the ball and grind the clock, Jefferson’s ground forces proved superior.
Dragon quarterback Colby Clark rushed for 126 yards and four touchdowns, and Jefferson outgained Appling County 228-105 on the ground in beating the Pirates 28-7 Friday (Nov. 22) to advance to the state quarterfinals.
Jefferson (10-1), with its triple-option attack, outrushed Appling County (9-3) 160-5 in the second half to secure its sixth state quarterfinal appearance in eight seasons.
“I’m just proud of how we’re built,” said Jefferson coach Gene Cathcart, who improved to 4-2 in playoff games with the Dragons. “Our identity, these kids have really bought into it, and it fits us. It may be about as sexy as a left-handed hammer, but it’s awfully good when you keep playing and you get to practice on Thanksgiving.”
After falling down 7-0 early, the Dragons scored 28 unanswered points to earn their 10th-straight win.
Jefferson fullback Kade McNally, who finished with 64 yards on 10 carries, said the Pirates “were really physical up front” defensively.
“They dove every time, but the offense was able to make some holes a couple of times, and we were able to break some, and that was the key to winning it right there,” McNally said.
Meanwhile, the Dragon defense shut out the Pirates for the final 41:29 of the game after surrendering a 13-play touchdown drive on the opening series.
The Dragons surrendered just 37 total yards in the second half.
“The way they work, they run the ball a lot,” Jefferson safety Malaki Starks said. “They’re an old-school offense. The first drive, it was just our jitters. We had to get them out. When we came back the second drive and the third drive, we stayed calm and we did what we do.”
Cathcart used a baseball analogy to describe the defensive turnaround.
“It’s almost like going through the order and seeing a pitcher one time,” Cathcart said. “(Defensive coordinator) Tom (Parker) and those guys, defensively, did an unbelievable job.”
The game started much differently than it ended. Using its bruising running game, Appling County methodically drove 71 yards on 13 plays — 11 of them on the ground — and scored on a one-yard keeper from quarterback Jeremiah Holmes with 5:29 left in the first quarter.
Jefferson, which had just two first-half possessions, didn’t score until the 2:56 mark in the second quarter when Clark dove in from two yards out to tie the game 7-7. The touchdown capped a 15-play, 83-yard march that took 9:04 off the clock.
The pivotal play in the game came in the third quarter. With Jefferson facing a fourth-and-one, Clark sprinted 33 yards for a touchdown to give the Dragons a 14-7 lead at the 6:22 mark.
“They really sold out to a particular play,” Cathcart said of Appling County’s defense. “They really were aligned to a particular play. (Offensive coordinator) Mike (Doolittle) did a great job in getting us in the right play. Obviously, with them stacking the line of scrimmage right there, once Colby broke through, he wasn’t going to be denied.”
Clark added a one-yard touchdown run with 2:29 left in the third quarter. Jefferson then put the game away in the fourth quarter with a 13-play, 68-yard drive that ended with Clark scoring his fourth touchdown of the night on a three-yard run with 4:20 remaining.
“That last drive, we knew we were going to score,” McNally said. “We just kept pounding. We didn’t care how many yards, as long as we were getting positive yards, and we knew we were going to score right there … We knew that would end it right there.”
Jefferson’s defense ended Appling County’s final possession when several defenders planted Holmes into the ground for a sack, forcing a turnover on downs with 1:35 left in the game.
The Dragons now have Thanksgiving-week football to look forward to.
Jefferson will face Crisp County (9-3) next Friday (Nov. 29) in the round of eight in a battle of No. 1 seeds. Crisp County, which beat North Hall 41-3 in the second round, is the host team as a result of the “universal coin flip” conducted earlier this week.
A 3.5-hour bus ride awaits the Dragons next week.
“We’re ready,” McNally said. “We’ve made them before, and we can do it again.”
Starks said this Dragon team was “looking to reload this year, and I think we did.”
“It’s just an amazing feeling to be going to the Elite Eight,” he said.
Cathcart is happy his senior class — which has a 40-9 record and a 7-3 mark in the playoffs — will continue to play on this season after the adversity of an injury-filled season last year.
“They say one of the cognitive distortions in life is the fairness fallacy,” Cathcart said. “Life’s not fair. This is one of those times that the good guys — this senior class and this team here — the good guys are getting a chance to do something special, and they’ve earned it and deserve it. I’m just happy to be along for the ride.”
A 7 0 0 0 — 7
J 0 7 14 7 — 28
A — Jeremiah Holmes 1-yd run (Carlos Escalante kick), 5:29 first quarter
J — Colby Clark 2-yd run (Levin Jones kick), 2:56 second quarter
J — Colby Clark 33-yd run (Levin Jones kick), 6:22 third quarter
J — Colby Clark 1-yd run (Levin Jones kick), 2:29 third quarter
J — Colby Clark 3-yd run (Levin Jones kick), 4:20 fourth quarter