ATLANTA — It was just a flash.
Less than 123 seconds of time trickled off the scoreboard even though it took about a half hour of actual time.
But 48 minutes of football boiled down to less than two minutes Friday in the GHSA Class AAA state championship game at the Georgia Dome.
Leading 13-0 against juggernaut Buford in the waning moments of the first half, Washington County had a defensive lapse.
That mistake, grouped with an untimely holding call and a long Buford run, ultimately buried Washington County in a 35-19 loss to the Wolves.
Buford (15-0), which was appearing in its seventh consecutive championship game, won its ninth state championship since 2001. The Golden Hawks (13-1) finished the season with their most wins since back-to-back 15-0 seasons in 1996 and 1997.
A.J. Gray passed for 231 yards and two touchdowns for Washington County, both of which went to D.J. Sanders. Sanders caught eight passes for 169 yards.
Thomas Wilson led Buford with 118 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Joshua Thomas added 94 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.
“We were just outmanned,” Washington County coach Joel Ingram said. “They fought their ever-living tails off. I’m not disappointed in them. We were giving up 150 pounds of man at some spots. We did the best with what we had.”
Washington County led top-ranked Buford 13-0 in the second quarter following a pair of big plays. The Golden Hawks seemed poised to take that lead into the locker room at the half and become the first team all season to hold Buford scoreless in the first half.
But the Golden Hawks lost Buford tight end Isaac Nauta on a third-and-8 with less than 20 seconds to play in the half. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound sophomore tight end caught the pass from Taylor Mitchell and raced for a 43-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left in the half. Washington County linebacker D.J. Sanders said the play came off a communication issue in the defense.
Regardless of what went wrong, the impact was unmistakable.
“The touchdown at the end of the half is where the whole momentum swung,” Washington County linebacker Will Coneway said. “They just had momentum on their side then.”
The Golden Hawks appeared to neutralize the momentum with a 57-yard pass from Gray to Sanders, but a holding penalty negated the play. Washington County punted two plays later, and the Wolves took over from the Golden Hawks’ 28.
Buford’s Thomas Wilson, a Missouri commit, raced 28 yards for a touchdown on the very next play and the Wolves led 14-13.
“In a championship game, it comes down to something like that,” Ingram said. “That play (called back for holding) went from a total momentum shift of getting us deep in their territory to on our heels. That’s a 14-point swing. I don’t know if we ever recovered from that. There’s no room for error against Buford.”
Buford took over from there pounding the ball downfield on a 10-play drive that ended with an 18-yard touchdown run on third down by Joshua Thomas to open the fourth quarter.
Buford linebacker Korie Rogers, a Clemson commit, stopped Gray on fourth-and-1 draw play at the Washington County 41 on the ensuing drive. Wilson scored on a 35-yard run two plays later to cap a 28-point unanswered run, pushing Buford’s lead to 28-13.
“This is fun, and doing it like that, doing it when you’re behind and you get tested, that is a pretty good deal on this stage,” Buford head coach Jess Simpson said.
Washington County kept clawing.
The Golden Hawks scored on a 64-yard touchdown pass from Gray to Sanders to cut the lead to nine. Ingram elected to go for a 2-point conversion, rather than attempt an extra point to keep it a one-possession game. Gray was stuffed short of the goal line, and nine points was as close as the Hawks would get.
“We kept answering against arguably the best defense in any class,” Ingram said. “We just didn’t have an answer for their superior depth and their size.”
Washington County built its early lead on a pair of big plays.
Gray connected with Sanders on a 41-yard touchdown pass to open the second quarter.
The lead grew to two touchdowns when Melvin Hill tight-roped down the sideline for an 83-yard punt return touchdown.
The Buford defense forced Washington County to go to the air for most of the game. The Golden Hawks entered the game with more than 4,500 yards on the ground and three 1,300-yard rushers. The Wolves held them to 42 yards on the ground.