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LINCOLNTON, Ga. - The chroniclers of Red Devils football history on the home sideline said it had never happened before.
Lincoln County knew it had a 21-14 victory and another Georgia High School Association Class A state title in hand with 2:02 left to play Saturday night at Buddy Bufford Field.
The Red Devils were facing a potential fourth-down call against Clinch County. The ball was at the Panthers 44. Senior quarterback Brandon Barden went with a hard count that drew a Clinch County encroachment foul and secured a first down that meant the program's 14th state title in team history.
It's getting harder to find new ways to win them with 14 state titles but this one was original. The stands at Buddy Bufford Field went crazy when the officials signaled the Red Devils' eighth and final first down of the game.
"Whether I would have went for it on fourth down I will never know," Lincoln County coach Larry Campbell said, who won his 11th state championship in 35 years leading the team.
Lincoln County (14-1) was planning to call time if the Panthers would not have jumped.
"I was so proud to see them jump offside I don't know what I was going to do," Campbell said. "They was fixing to throw a load in my lap to go for it or to punt. I don't know what I was doing. I really don't. All my coaches said I was going to go for it. I really don't know."
That fourth-down play iced it. Another meant the first score of the evening. Barden snuck in from a yard shy of the goal line with 5:57 to play in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.
That and a 54-yard Rontae Norman punt return was all the team's offense in the first quarter. The Red Devils managed only 12 total yards on offense in the opening stanza.
The next quarter was where the Red Devils won it. The team put together 151 yards in the second quarter and built a 21-7 lead going into the half.
The big play of the night came off the fast-twitch legs of senior running back Darell Norman. His play might have been another Lincoln County first. Norman ran 66 yards for a score with 5:41 to go before the half.
"I really didn't see how I got free," Norman said. "I closed my eyes where I think I made contact with everybody. I closed my eyes when I made contact right in the hole, broke contact and kept on running."
Jatheus Jones hauled in a Barden pass with 1:47 left in the second quarter for a 22-yard touchdown pass.
"Two words," Jones said. "Blown coverage. They let me by and forgot about me."
Clinch County (12-3) looked a lot different on offense without suspended starter Shane Burns. All-state halfback Justin Gainey took most of the first-half snaps via a direct snap route lined up in the shotgun behind center.
"That team was fast," Gainey said. "We've got a lot of speed on our team but those Lincoln County boys were faster. ... Having to play quarterback threw me off all night. I had just ran the ball all year."
Gainey said he was the plan at quarterback all week. The thoughts of Clinch County playing freshman Vintavious Cooper at quarterback for Burns appeared to be pure exaggeration.
Campbell suggested that was not a factor.
"Absolutely zero impact," he said. "That No. 7 did not carry the football one time in nine game films that we had. The kid had been suspended before. They had to play other times without him at quarterback. They were more dangerous with No. 28 (Justin Gainey, No. 31 (Ronnie Hill) and No. 9 (Dexter Reeves) back there than him. All that No. 7 did was hand it off. I think their coach would tell you the same. I don't think it affected the game one bit."
Lincoln County 21, Clinch County 14
PLAY OF THE GAME: It wasn't very dramatic, but when Clinch County jumped offside with 2:02 left in a 21-14 game it wiped away a potential fourth-down call out of Lincoln County's hands. When the flags fell, every Red Devil knew they had the program's 14th state championship in the bag.
WHY LINCOLN COUNTY WON: A second quarter offensive outburst wiped away a dry first quarter with only 12 total yards. Lincoln County had a 66-yard touchdown run and a 31-yard run that set up a 22-yard touchdown pass to build a 21-7 lead.
WHY CLINCH COUNTY LOST: The Panthers managed only 90 yards across seven possessions between their first and final scoring drives.
STAR OF THE GAME: Lincoln County senior Darell Norman gave the team the lead for good with his 66-yard scoring run in the second quarter. He led all rushers with 92 yards on 10 carries.
WHAT'S NEXT: Lincoln County (14-1) has another parade and state championship ceremony to plan. Clinch County finishes up at 12-3.
Reach Jeff Sentell at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.