“I’m excited for the kids for winning the region title, but we’ve still got to go back to work and take them one at a time,” said Thomson head coach Milan Turner.
The top-seeded Bulldogs will face the fourth seed from Region 2-AAA at The Brickyard on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the first round of the GHSA Class AAA playoffs.
Jefferson County (4-6, 2-2) is the third seed from Region 3-AAA and plays at former No. 1 Peach County in the first round next Friday.
Battle rushed for touchdowns of 12 and 13 yards and returned a muffed kickoff 84 yards to start a third-quarter scoring frenzy. Ryan Kelly recovered a fumble in the end zone after Chris Jordan was stripped crossing the goal line at the end of a 54-yard run for the last of four touchdowns between both teams in the first 2:48 of the third quarter.
“I’ve never been prouder of Jefferson County,” said Warriors head coach J.B. Arnold. “It was a game nobody gave us a chance. You roll in here and play the No. 1 team in the state and you make them earn it and push it. It was a tough loss, but as we step up in classification and come in here and play a great program like Thomson, again I can’t be more proud.”
The game started hitting a frenetic pace just before halftime. Thomson had finally broken a scoreless tie on Battle’s 12-yard run with 3:28 left in the second quarter, and Jefferson County was responding with a long drive to the Bulldogs 13.
Warriors quarterback David Wright – who filled in after the Warriors lost their starter to a broken arm last week against Swainsboro – completed five consecutive passes for 49 yards to move into the red zone. But Wright was picked off on the next play by Fabian Few at the 10 and the Bulldog senior return it 90 yards untouched for what looked like a game-breaking score with 0:04 left in the half.
The Thomson bench, however, was flagged for sideline interference when the side judge, trailing 15 yards behind the play, ran into the shoulder of a celebrating Bulldog assistant and nullified the touchdown with a flag.
“We left some points off the board in the first half,” said Turner, whose Bulldogs also got stopped on fourth-and-1 at the Jefferson 21 on their opening possession.
There was no shortage off scoring after intermission. Battle picked up the muffed opening kick and split the Warriors’ coverage for an 84-yard touchdown.
Jefferson County’s Shontrez Wicker answered immediately with a 78-yard kickoff return of his own up the right sideline to make it 14-6.
Thomson’s Kelly fumbled a pitch on the next play from scrimmage, setting the Warriors up at the Bulldog 32. Two plays later, Wright hit Wicker for a 32-yard touchdown to make it 14-12 after the conversion pass failed.
“We didn’t play well on special teams there and gave one back and immediately we fumbled it back to them and let them get back in the football game,” Turner said. “You just can’t do that against teams like that.”
With the momentum, Jefferson County’s defense seemed to force a three-and-out, but the Warriors were called for roughing the passer on third-and-12 to give Thomson a first down. On the next play, Jordan broke loose for what looked like a 55-yard touchdown. But the Bulldogs’ star was stripped just before he crossed the goal line. After a long effort to unravel the pile, the officials credited Kelly for the recovery in the end zone.
Jordan’s conversion run made it 22-12 with 9:22 still left in the third quarter.
Jefferson County mounted two 15-play drives the rest of the game. The first covered 87 yards and ate up 8:30 before Jermaine Davis scored on fourth down from the 3 to make it 22-18.
Then after Battle’s third TD made it 29-18 with 9:30 left, the Warriors ran out nearly seven minutes with another drive that ended on downs at the Bulldogs’ 48 with 2:46 left.
Thomson killed the rest of the clock to finish 10-0 in the regular season for the first time since 2002, when the Bulldogs went 15-0 to win their last state title. Thomson went 9-0-1 in 2007 before losing in the first round of the state playoffs.
Jefferson County was doing a solid job of bottling up Thomson star tailback Chris Jordan, who had only 27 first-half rushing yards, fumbled once and was stuffed once on fourth-and-1 at the Warriors’ 21.
The Bulldogs finally got a sustained drive mounted late in the second quarter. After converting a fourth-and-1 to the Jefferson County 19, Battle broke free wide right three plays later for a 12-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Thomson lead with 3:28 left in the first half.