All week long, Pinecrest Academy knew it would face a much stronger, much bigger team when sixth-ranked George Walton came to town Friday.
But what the Paladins lacked in size and pedigree, they more than made up for with heart, determination and execution.
Rushing for 300 yards and forcing three key turnovers, Pinecrest raced to a 19-3 halftime advantage and never looked back, toppling the Bulldogs 29-10 on a spirited Senior Night at Pinecrest.
"The whole week, we talked about effort," Pinecrest quarterback Jimmy Strom said. "We made a few mistakes tonight, but our effort was incredible."
Pinecrest fullback John Paul Metz rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries, bulling through the strong George Walton interior defense. Strom added 112 yards and two touchdowns, slicing through the Bulldogs on option keepers. The Pinecrest offensive line, outsized by the bigger George Walton front seven, dominated from start to finish.
The Paladins (4-2, 3-1 Region 8-A) began the night tied for third in the region with No. 7-ranked Prince Avenue Christian and Athens Christian. Pinecrest, which lost against No. 5 Athens Academy last week, travels to Athens Christian on Friday.
If Pinecrest plays like it did against George Walton (5-2, 2-1), it has more than a puncher’s chance at taking another big step toward a postseason berth.
"The guys up front played tremendous," Metz said. "No matter if you are big or small, you have to get in the right spot and stay low. They stayed low, and I just followed them."
Nursing a 10-3 lead midway through the second quarter, Pinecrest saw the Bulldogs march to the Paladins’ 14. On third down, George Walton quarterback Tucker Shell fumbled the snap. Defensive lineman Zach Guard recovered for Pinecrest at the 15 with 4:18 left.
The Paladins moved quickly. Strom hit Guard for 12 yards on fourth-and-2 to keep the drive alive and give Pinecrest a first down at the George Walton 26. Metz broke loose on the next play, shaking a tackle at the line of scrimmage en route to a 26-yard touchdown.
Christopher Birozes hit the extra point, pushing Pinecrest’s lead to 16-3 with 32.3 seconds left.
On the first play of the ensuing possession, Guard tipped Shell’s screen pass and hauled in the interception at the Bulldogs’ 4. Birozes nailed an 18-yard field goal with one second left, sending Pinecrest into halftime ahead 19-3.
Defensively, we had to bend and not break," Pinecrest head coach Todd Winter said. "We came up with big, crucial plays."
That trend continued in the second half. The Paladins pinned the Bulldogs deep in their territory on George Walton’s first possession of the third quarter, did not allow a first down, and took possession after a short punt at the Bulldogs’ 32.
Seven plays later Pinecrest was in the end zone again, Strom bouncing off the left side for a 6-yard touchdown. Birozes’ extra point gave the Paladins a 26-3 advantage with 3:12 left in the quarter.
George Walton opened the scoring with 8:42 left in the first quarter on Cole Fisher’s 44-yard field goal. Undaunted, the Paladins needed just 71 seconds to take the lead for keeps. Metz’ 44-yard kickoff return set up Pinecrest at its 46. Three plays later, Strom slipped through the middle on an option keeper, broke toward the right sideline and outraced the defense to the end zone.
Birozes’ extra point sailed through the uprights, and Pinecrest held a 7-3 advantage with 7:31 remaining in the opening quarter.
The Paladins were poised to score on their next possession, but fumbled at the Bulldogs’ 2 to end the threat. Pinecrest’s defense made sure the miscue didn’t hurt, forcing a fumble that Adam Guard recovered for the Paladins at the Bulldogs’ 35.
Pinecrest grinded 6:15 off the clock on the ensuing possession, getting a Birozes’ 37-yard field goal to extend the lead to 10-3 with 6:20 left before halftime.
Birozes finished with three field goals, adding a 34-yarder with 5:10 to play. The Paladins finished with 20 first downs and averaged 5.4 yards per rushing attempt, a testament to the Pinecrest offensive line that did not have the size of George Walton’s front, yet found a way to dominate the line of scrimmage.
"We just pushed them and got under them," Pinecrest offensive lineman Ryan Brooks said. "I think they underestimated us. We just went out there and took it to them."
George Walton quarterback Hunter Rice, who did not play in the first half due to a shoulder injury, engineered a scoring drive late in the third quarter. Stanley Williams, who led the Bulldogs with 94 yards rushing on 11 carries, scored on an 8-yard run with 56.9 seconds left in the third.
But it was far too little, far too late. Pinecrest may not have been the biggest team on this night, but it was the better team.
"It’s definitely a big confidence game for us," Strom said. "When we played Athens Academy last week, we felt like we could have beaten them if we had executed. We played with that mentality tonight."
Pinecrest's victory over George Walton was the program's first since 2009, the two schools' last season in the Georgia Independent School Association. The Bulldogs defeated the Paladins 41-7 in 2010 and 28-0 last year.