POWDER SPRINGS — The plan was clear when Zach Burns got the snap.
West Forsyth's senior quarterback had helped the Wolverines inch back from a 28-0 hole partly on the strength of his legs, keeping drives alive and gaining yards with creative scrambles. With West at Hillgrove's five-yard line and fourth-and-one early in the fourth quarter, the possibility to make it a two-score game looming, Burns was going to tuck it and run.
He didn't have much of a chance. Burns didn't take off immediately, and Hillgrove pounced on him, snuffing out the Wolverines' last chance to make it close and putting them on course for a 42-20 loss.
That pivotal play was indicative of a one of the main problems that West head coach Shawn Cahill identified.
"We just got handled up front," Cahill said. "On both sides of the ball."
That disparity was clear from the game's opening drive. Hillgrove received the opening kickoff and zipped 80 yards for a score in six plays, with 15- and 25-yard runs from blue-chip recruit Jaylen McCollough capping off the Hawks' drive.
When West got the ball, the Wolverines gained just a yard on three plays.
That was the pattern for much of the first half: West couldn't match Hillgrove's line on either side of the ball, and the Wolverines' deficit worsened to 28-0 midway through the second quarter.
"They were powerful," Cahill said. "They ran through some stuff. We'd hit them and maybe slow them down for a second, and they'd keep going."
The Wolverines (2-1) started catching up with Hillgrove (1-2) towards the end of the first half, with Burns finding Saxby Waxer for a 12-yard catch for the team's first score, and the second half saw more progress. West adjusted to the speed of the Hawks' offense, the Wolverines' coaches found running plays that worked, and Burns worked his strong connection with tight end Ben Bresnahan, who wound up with eight catches for 116 yards.
"I like to go up and make the play wherever it is, really," Bresnahan said.
It was a 30-yard catch from Bresnahan that put the Wolverines in the red zone and help set up the failed fourth-and-one. That wasn't the only pivotal play that went against West: There was a roughing the kicker penalty that erased what would have been the Wolverines' first stop; a pass to Bresnahan that at first looked like it put West in the red zone but was called incomplete; and an interception that ended West's first possession of the second half after just four plays.
"With our game plan this week, we definitely thought that we could beat them by that (margin) the other way," Bresnahan said. "I'm not going to blame it on any call or anything, but if a couple more had went our way, we would have been at a 10-point ballgame going into the fourth quarter."
Cahill said the blame went all around for West, as much on the coaches as the players. A positive aspect of the loss, he said, is how it can become an example for the Wolverines.
"It was good for our kids to see it," he said. "...It was good to see that we have to play fundamentally sound in order to beat teams like that."