With stagnant offense and fourth-quarter controversy threatening to tear West Forsyth’s chance at school history from its grasp, the Wolverines’ defense passed the last of many tests.
Mohamed Camara and Josh Gordon brought down Etowah’s Devonte Wheaton inside West’s 10-yard line on the final play of Friday night’s first-round playoff game at The Den, preserving a 13-7 victory. Wheaton had snared a last-second heave from quarterback John Oliver.
In front of a chilled but vocal home crowd, the Wolverines captured the school’s first postseason victory and became the first Forsyth County team to win a Class AAAAA playoff game.
“It feels amazing that me and my teammates get to be a part of this,” Camara said. “We want to keep on going as far as we can.
“We’re not just doing this for us, we’re doing it for everyone in Forsyth County because no one really respects our football around here.”
West (10-1) will travel to Hillgrove next Friday for the round-of-16 game. The Region 4 champs, led by star running back Kenyan Drake, blew out Beach 49-12 on Friday.
Much like West and Etowah’s first meeting this season, a 21-13 West win Sept. 9, the Wolverines came out on top of a defensive struggle lacking in aesthetics but not short on drama.
West stopped Etowah (6-5) three-and-out three times, forced two turnovers on downs and recovered two fumbles. Quarterback John Oliver, who'd been attempting just 12 passes per game coming in, completed 11 of 24 throws for 139 yards but often found safety Trevor Guthrie, cornerback Jon Crawford and others swatting away deep passes.
Etowah outgained the Wolverines 229 yards to 165. Close to a third of West’s production came on its only substantial scoring drive, a 64-yarder capped by running back Blake Roberts’ 2-yard touchdown dive in the second quarter.
The Wolverines led 13-0 until Wheaton’s 21-yard touchdown run with 38 seconds left in the third quarter. Wheaton, who'd been quiet in the Eagles' previous couple contests, rushed for 81 yards on 21 carries.
West’s oft-explosive offense didn't move past the Eagle 44 again until early in the fourth. A trick pass from Jake Wieczorek to fellow wingback Lance Belue went for 33 yards — the Wolverines’ longest play of the night — and set up West two yards inside the red zone.
Facing fourth-and-4, quarterback A.J. Erdely rolled right and found a diving Jake Wieczorek for 7 yards over the middle. Initially ruled a catch, the officials overturned the play and awarded Etowah possession, befuddling West’s players, who had lined up for the next play after the chains were moved forward.
It wasn’t the first call the Wolverines would contest.
Defensive lineman Josh Davis recovered a fumble on the ensuing possession, but West was forced to punt.
After Graham Bunting pinned Etowah inside its own 2-yard line with 4:36 to go, Oliver lofted a 26-yard pass down the left sideline to receiver Martyn Detz.
Etowah followed with a third-down conversion and two successful fourth-and-short rushes, and Oliver found Detz again, this time on a 10-yard out the receiver caught falling out of bounds on the Wolverines’ sideline with 32.2 seconds on the clock.
Both of Detz’s feet appeared to be out of bounds, but the pass was ruled complete. That sent West’s bench into a frenzy, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that moved the ball to the Wolverines’ 25.
Back-to-back holding and false start penalties pushed the Eagles back to West’s 48 before Camara and Gordon pulled down Wheaton, who twisted away from them initially after out-jumping Gordon for the ball.
“We had some adversity there through the second half, some things that went against us,” said West head coach Frank Hepler. “I was really glad to see them step up and not give in and put their heads down.”
Erdely, who completed just five passes for 38 yards and threw an interception but led West with 50 yards rushing, scampered 12 yards to set up Wieczorek’s 6-yard touchdown run with eight minutes left in the first quarter.
West had been forced to punt on its first possession, but Guthrie poked the ball loose from returner Michael McCauley and recovered at Etowah’s 20.
Clarke Central 35, Lambert 32
ATHENS — Brock Maxwell’s return to the offense gave Lambert a big lift Friday night, but it wasn’t quite enough to produce the program’s first postseason victory.
The Longhorns overcame a 21-10 second half deficit at Clarke Central in the first round of the Class AAAA state playoffs, but ultimately fell in a shootout that saw four lead changes in the fourth quarter.
Maxwell finished with 203 yards of offense, including 159 yards rushing on 14 carries, after an injury limited him to punting duties in the final three games of the regular season.
“[It] really comes down to players and we told them they need to look in the mirror and play their hearts out and leave it on the field,” said Lambert head coach Sid Maxwell. “I’ve been around almost 30 years and I can’t think of a bunch that did more of that than tonight. We came up a little short, but we weren’t short of effort.”
Following a subdued first half that ended with Lambert kicker Brendan Everett hitting a 37-yard field goal as time expired, a back-and-forth battle over the final two quarters exposed problem areas and strengths in both teams.
The Longhorns (8-3) and Gladiators (10-1) each recovered a fumble on a kickoff return in the third quarter, and both sides recorded a touchdown run of at least 70 yards in the second half.
Clarke Central came out of the locker room trailing 10-7, but quickly flipped the scoreboard with consecutive touchdowns, building a 21-10 advantage halfway through the third quarter.
Lambert bounced back quickly, as Grant Schuster returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to the Clarke Central 29, and David Broadus (98 yards rushing, 3 TD) went eight yards for the score. A successful two-point conversion by Brock Maxwell (203 total yards, TD) pulled Lambert to within 21-18.
Longhorns senior Jacob Kinder recovered a Billups fumble at the Gladiators 46 on the ensuing kickoff, and Lambert went back on top in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter with a three-yard scoring run by Broadus, putting the visitors up 25-21.
The teams swapped the lead three times from there, with an 11 play, 80-yard Clarke Central scoring drive immediately followed by a 74-yard touchdown run by Brock Maxwell, making it 32-28 Lambert with 6:24 to play.
The Gladiators big-played the Horns right back from there, with Watson bouncing off and weaving through defenders on a 71-yard play to finish off a quick 83-yard scoring series for Clarke Central, putting the home team up 35-32 with 4:34 left.
Clarke Central’s Daylen Pope pounced on an errant pitch from Brock Maxwell in Broadus’ direction with 2:48 to play, appearing to end Lambert’s hopes.
But the Gladiator offense couldn’t take advantage of the chance, and Lambert would get the ball one more time.
With under a minute to play, Brock Maxwell and Broadus both took a few shots down the field. The Longhorns advanced to the Clarke Central 49, but the game ended when Paul Eckardt intercepted Broadus at the 30 with no time remaining.
“We’re a team in progress, very fortunate to get back [to the playoffs],” Maxwell said. “We’re heading in the right direction. We’re not there yet.”
The Gladiators will travel to unbeaten Northside-Warner Robins for the second round, after the Eagles routed Glynn Academy 42-16 .
For an in-depth look at both playoff games, pick up a copy of Sunday's Forsyth County News. Follow sports reporter Phil Ervin on Twitter @PhilErvin_FCN for all the latest in Forsyth County athletics.