MACON - Playing on the road and having seen the momentum shift, the region title was on the verge of slipping out of the hands for Aquinas against Stratford.
But a gritty third-down run with less than two minutes to go by Fightin’ Irish quarterback John Paul kept the ball away from the homestanding Eagles, and Aquinas ran out the clock to claim the GHSA Region 7-A title in a 30-27 win.
The win gives Aquinas (7-3) a likely first-round bye in the state playoffs with the Eagles (9-1) expected to play at home in the first round.
“It’s good to get the region back,” Aquinas head coach James Leonard said. “We lost it last year, so it was good to get it back and get some rest next week.”
Stratford was playing without standout defensive lineman Tobe Umerah due to injury, and Aquinas took full advantage of his absence, using a time-consuming mixture of short passes and power running to lead 20-7 at halftime and 30-14 early in the fourth quarter before the Eagles made it close before coming up short.
Aquinas controlled the trenches in the first half, dumping off short passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage multiple times and also kept the clock running with a tenacious running effort spearheaded by Joseph Douglas. As a result, the Eagles defense was worn down in a big way during the first half and its offense was kept on the sideline.
The first two scoring drives of the game for Aquinas consisted of 16 and 14 plays, respectively. A tunnel screen to Welch set up the final Aquinas score of the first half, three-yard pass to Welch from Paul for a 20-7 lead at the break. Douglas got the Irish on the board on a one-yard plunge, and Josh Parrish hauled in a five-yard pass from Paul for what was then a 14-7 Aquinas lead. Paul rushed for 101 yards on Friday and passed for 194.
Stratford adjusted from the first snap of the second half, taking away much of what Aquinas tried to do in its short passing game. That’s when the Aquinas offensive line and Paul got in gear.
The Irish found great second-half success by way of designed runs and speed-option plays by Paul, the biggest being a 57-yard run down the sideline that put Aquinas ahead 30-14 early in the fourth quarter before Stratford rallied to score a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter that bookended an onside kick before the Irish held on for the win.
“They eat the clock a lot, so we knew we couldn’t put the ball on the ground,” Leonard said. “Our guys fought and theirs did, too. It was a really good football game.”
SCREVEN COUNTY 44, JEFFERSON COUNTY 20
In Sylvania, Ga., Screven County defeated Jefferson County 44-20 Friday night to win the Region 4-AA title.
The second-ranked Gamecocks (9-0, 7-0 Region 4-AA) scored early and often to win its second consecutive region title. A year ago, Screven County defeated Jefferson County 49-34 to win the region crown.
Jefferson County, ranked No. 6, fell to 9-1 and 6-1 in the region.
SC Kim Hunter 17-yd run (Michael Johnston kick good), 11:02
SC Safety, 4:57
SC CJ Wright 4-yd run (EJ Roberson run 2-pt), 147
JC Ty King 27-yd pass from Jaden Jenkins (Evans Hodges kick good), 11:31
SC Hunter 11-yd run (Johnston kick good), 10:36
SC Eli Brodnex 52-yd interception return (Johnston kick good), 9:53
SC Roberson 78-yd run (kick failed), 3:08
JC King 14-yd pass from CJ Hales (Hodges kick good), 7:20
SC Armani Bunbury 75 kickoff return (Johnston kick good), 6:33
JC Jayjay Hector 8-yd pass from Hales, no pat
First Downs 219
Passing Yards 253-119-40-1
Rushing: SC: EJ Roberson 5-90 Kim Hunter 8-74 CJ Wright 9-49.
SOUTH AIKEN 47, RIDGE VIEW 28
In Aiken, the Thoroughbreds began the first round of the Class AAAA playoffs with a big victory.
South Aiken (9-2) got plenty of production from running back Chris Roberts, quarterback Cody Boynton and playmaker Deshun Kitchings.
Ridge View finished its season at 7-4. It was the second consecutive season the Blazers were eliminated by the Thoroughbreds in 2016, South Aiken won the third-round matchup 50-17.
South Aiken takes on the Greer-Daniel winner in next week’s second round.