LINCOLNTON, Ga. — After 32 episodes of futility, the streak is dead.
No. 3 Aquinas buried more than four decades of misery at the hands of Lincoln County with a dominant 42-14 road victory at Buddy Bufford Field powered by an unstoppable Ruben Garnett.
Garnett rushed 41 times for 284 yards and produced 331 total offensive yards and four touchdowns as the undefeated Irish (6-0, 3-0 Region 7-A) turned a 14-14 score in the second quarter into a second-half blowout.
“This was a big game and we just wanted to get monkey off our back and we did it,” said Garnett, a junior who already made a verbal commitment to play at Duke.
Garnett’s 59-yard scamper up the left sideline with 4:38 left before halftime proved to be the go-ahead score and it was all downhill from there for the Red Devils (3-3, 2-1).
“Ruben’s played lights out all year, we expected that,” said Aquinas first-year coach James Leonard. “We knew going into this game we were going to put it on his back, so we did and he did a great job.”
Said Garnett: “I just wanted to do all I could to help my teammates and I felt like I did that.”
Lincoln County head coach Larry Campbell, who hadn’t lost to an Aquinas team since his first year as head coach in 1972, was equally impressed with Garnett.
“Great back and probably the best player in the area, hands down, in any classification,” Campbell said.
In the second half it was Garnett’s powerful second-effort runs that broke Lincoln County’s will. The Red Devils struggled to control the line of scrimmage after its best two-way lineman, Andy Ray Wengrow, had to be helped off the field in the second quarter with what looked like another devastating knee injury.
“Not only did losing Wengrow kill us, because he makes all the line calls, but the guy who backs him up (Mitch Mathews) was out with an injury already,” Campbell said. “It deflated all of us.”
Aquinas took the second-half kickoff and drove 65 yards capped by a 29-yard screen pass touchdown from Liam Welch to Garnett to go ahead 28-14.
The Irish defense, which forced two turnovers, made a huge fourth-down stand at the Aquinas 18 on the ensuing possession in the third quarter to thwart Lincoln County’s attempt to keep up.
The Irish added two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter to spark an unbridled celebration of players and fans – most of whom weren’t alive in 1972 the last time Aquinas beat Lincoln County.
But after seizing control of the region race, the Aquinas head coach seemed in no mood to celebrate.
“It’s great for our confidence but we’ve just got to refocus for next week because Wilkinson County is a heckuva football team,” a stoic Leonard said. “This game’s over.”
Last year’s game – also televised by WJBF Channel 6 – drew the largest crowds ever to Aquinas as the Irish faithful were confident that their fourth-ranked, Brendan Douglas-led team could finally end the drought against the No. 5 Red Devils.
It certainly seemed promising a year ago when the Irish led 10-0 at halftime and had held the Red Devils’ offense to only one first down.
Turnovers, however, foiled Aquinas again. Two in the third quarter led to Lincoln County taking a 13-10.
After an Irish field goal tied it with 2:29 remaining, Lincoln County drove the field and scored the winning touchdown on a 15-yard Ben Turner to Zireycus Letman pass with 48 seconds left.
The seven-point loss was the closest in the series since a 15-9 defeat in 1981.
“That loss last year really motivated us for this year,” Garnett said. “We came in an handled business.”
The Red Devils tried to assume the traditional bully role with a dominating 12-play, 80-yard opening drive capped by a Mike McIntire 16-yard touchdown run to take a quick 7-0 lead.
But Aquinas didn’t flinch, answering with a 73-yard drive off its own. Garnett accounted for 55 of them on seven carries before Liam Welch hit Chris Lambert for a 17-yard tying touchdown.
The quarterback’s uncle, Matt Welch, played on the 1972 Irish team that beat Lincoln County, kicking the final extra point in that 45-0 victory.
The Irish took advantage of a Taz Lindsey interception at the Lincoln County 46 to take its first lead, 14-7, on a Garnett 2-yard wildcat run.
Lincoln County answered itself with a 47-yard drive after Jamar Norman’s 50-yard kickoff return. McIntire finished it again with a 1-yard off tackle run to make it 14-14.
Aquinas came back with Garnett again, as the junior commitment to Duke broke up the left sideline for 59 yards to make it 20-14. The Irish couldn’t take advantage of another interception in Lincoln County territory and settled for the six-point lead at intermission.
Garnett accounted for 189 of Aquinas’ 219 first-half yards.
Mike McIntire led the Red Devils on Friday with 124 rushing yards and both touchdowns.
Lincoln County had won 32 consecutive games against Aquinas dating back to Campbell’s first season as head coach. Lincoln County still leads the series 34-3-1.
“They’re a good football team and I don’t see nobody beating them in the regular season,” Campbell said of Aquinas.