LINCOLNTON, Ga. - Coach Mike Gunn knew his Athens Academy Spartans would have their hands full with the top-ranked and undefeated Lincoln County Red Devils in the second round of the Class A playoffs.
With two injured tailbacks, Gunn said the secret was to "just show up and play - we're not playing to do anything different in this rematch."
The result was nearly the same as the first meeting, too, with Lincoln County winning 35-6 to run its record to 12-0.
With the temperature dropping as fast as the wind was blowing, the Red Devils blew open a close game in the second half by exploiting the Spartans' mistakes and wearing them down.
"They're well coached and they gave us a good game," Lincoln County coach Larry Campbell said. "I don't think the score was indicative of the ball game. "I think the turning point was on the turnover in the third quarter."
Down 20-6, Athens Academy fumbled the ball in its own territory after quarterback Chris Rogers, under heavy pressure, forced an option pitch over the head of his running back. Lincoln County's Josh Beard captured the loose ball and dove forward to give his team the ball on the 20.
Five plays later, quarterback Travis Clark scored his third rushing touchdown of the night on a 1-yard run.
Beard was a critical factor in the game, leading both teams with 14 tackles and teaming with Drum Long to apply constant pressure on the Spartans' signal callers.
Athens Academy rotated Rogers and senior David Blanton at the position, but neither could mount an effective threat after the first half.
Lincoln County capitalized on a Spartans miscue on the first play of the game, as Roncey Cummings picked off an overthrown pass near midfield. One play later, Raquino Mickens ran 36 yards to the 2 to set up a short scoring run by Clark.
After trading punts, Athens Academy executed a textbook ball-control drive, grinding out 80 yards on 17 plays. A 4-yard run by Rogers capped the drive, which consumed 8 minutes, 53 seconds.
The Red Devils' response was lightning-quick: Four plays, 75 yards.
On third-and-6 from its 29, Lincoln County called an inside reverse, with Cummings picking up 54 yards through a large hole made by his offensive line and a downfield block by Clark.
On the next play, Clark faked inside, ran to the left, then cut inside for a 17-yard run to the end zone. Beard's extra point made it a 14-6 game at halftime.
While the Lincoln County defense took advantage of three turnovers by the Spartans, its offense moved the ball on the ground and in the air. The Red Devils' ground game showed amazing balance, as five backs rushed for over 50 yards. Clark's passing was impressive as usual; he connected on 7 of 11 passes, including a fourth-and-13 conversion - a 35-yard touchdown to Steven Brown to complete an 81-yard drive to open the second half.
Brown went up for the ball between defenders, then raced the final 10 yards into the end zone.
J.C. Webb paced the Spartans with 67 yards rushing, while Tyler Brantley and Andrew MacKay led the defense with 10 and eight tackles.
Lincoln County will face Metter in the state quarterfinals next week. Athens Academy completes its season at 7-5.