SPARTA, Ga. - Aquinas wanted to make a strong point heading into the playoffs, but too few points on too many opportunities got in the way Friday night.
Hancock Central rallied from a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat visiting Aquinas 20-18 on Friday in the regular season-ending battle for the No. 3 playoff seed from Region 7-A.
Quarterback Brandon Nolley rallied Hancock Central with two rushing touchdowns, one passing and the tie-breaking conversion run with 1:22 remaining as the Bulldogs (4-6, 3-2) secured third place in the region.
Nolley connected with Montreon Davis for an 11-yard touchdown to tie the game at 18-all with 1:22 left. Nolley then ran the two-point conversion in to give Hancock Central (4-6) its first lead of the game.
Aquinas (7-3) saw its own comeback bid fall short with Adam Ribock's failed 42-yard field goal attempt with five seconds remaining.
The Fighting Irish will make their first playoff appearance in 32 years as the No. 4 seed, facing Region 5-A champion Landmark Christian on the road next Friday.
"I'd like to go in winning instead of losing - on a high when now you're not," Aquinas coach Jim Connor said.
Jordan Gilbert rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns.
The story of the game wasn't as much what Hancock Central did in the end as what Aquinas failed to do in the beginning.
The Irish didn't fully capitalize on seven Bulldogs turnovers in the first 24 minutes. Aquinas led only 3-0 at halftime and 10-0 after Jordan Gilbert scored the first of his two touchdowns after the Irish recovered a pooch kickoff to open the third quarter.
"We should have won the first half," said Connor, whose Irish were missing four starters because of injuries. "We had dad-gum points and gave them away."
Five times the Fighting Irish took over in the Bulldogs' half of the field.
The only score came on a 26-yard Ribock field goal after Aquinas recovered a fumbled pitch at the Hancock Central 15. Ribock missed two other field goal attempts short and wide right from 42 and 32 yards respectively, though the accuracy of the shorter field goal was disputed.
"I thought it was inside (the uprights)," said Ribock of the second quarter kick that appeared good.
But the fourth quarter belonged to the sophomore Nolley.
"Coach told me to take over and it was my game," said Nolley, who either throwing or running accounted for all but 22 of Hancock Central's 178 second-half yards.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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