BUFORD - It was foreign territory for the Buford Wolves.
Heading into Friday’s playoff game against Callaway, the Wolves had led at the half of everyone of their games this season, usually by a comfortable margin.
Yet as the two teams headed to their respective locker rooms Friday night at the half of their Class AAA semifinal showdown, the Wolves stared up at the scoreboard and saw a strange sight.
The Cavaliers, not the Wolves, had the upper-hand.
Callaway, looking right at home on the big stage, led 14-7 at halftime, creating the possibility of a stunning victory over a team many consider to be the best in the state, regardless of classification.
The Wolves, though, responded like the champions they are.
Buford scored 17 unanswered points in the third quarter, and that was the difference in the game.
Buford held on for a 24-14 victory to remain unbeaten and set up Friday’s state-championship showdown against Washington County.
As for the Cavaliers, they earned a whole lot of respect in a loss.
Buford hadn’t just been beating its opponents this season, it had been bludgeoning them.
Before Friday’s game, the closest thing the Wolves had to a competitive game came in Week 2 when they thumped Gainesville 38-14.
Only one other team came within 30 points of the Wolves, and that was in the third round of the playoffs when they overwhelmed Carver 36-6.
Against Callaway, Buford had to fight for four quarters, something it hadn’t had to do all season.
“As a coach, all you can ever ask is for the kids to leave everything they have on the field, and I feel like we did that Friday night against Buford,” Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins said.
It wasn’t quite enough, though, not against a Buford team that is so dominant in all areas.
In the second half, Buford’s defense took over, limiting Callaway to just one first down.
Offensively, Buford’s powerful running game put up big numbers in the final two quarters.
The Wolves finished with 350 rushing yards, and Joshua Thomas ran for more than 200 yards and scored all of his team’s touchdowns.
Still, the outcome remained very much in doubt until a Callaway fourth-down play failed late in the game.
Buford was able to run out the clock and advance to the championship game for the seventh straight year, and it can win a sixth title in that span with a win over Washington County.
As for Callaway, while there was obviously disappointment over losing a close game, Wiggins said there are no regrets.
“I am so proud of our kids for obviously the way they played Friday night, but also the way they played all year, the way they’ve handled adversity all year,” Wiggins said. “Not every day has been perfect. But they came to work at practice, and in the weight room, and it has paid off for them. They’re a great group of young men, and I’m so very proud of them.”
In the days leading up to the game, the Callaway players said they believed they had what it took to compete with Buford.
They backed that up in the first half.
After Buford’s first possession ended with a missed field-goal attempt, Callaway went to work.
The Cavaliers drove 80 yards for the game’s first score, with quarterback Tez Parks scoring on a 22-yard run, and Chase Freeman’s extra point made it a 7-0 game.
The Wolves came right back with a touchdown of their own, with Thomas scoring on a 26-yard run, and it was a 7-7 game after the first quarter.
After the two teams traded punts, Callaway took over at the Buford 48-yard line.
Junior wide receiver Terry Godwin, who was one of the players Georgia head coach Mark Richt was there to see, made a terrific catch on a jump ball for a 45-yard reception inside the Buford 5-yard line.
The Cavaliers were staring at fourth down inside the 1-yard line when Eddie Culpepper muscled his way into the end zone, and Freeman’s extra point put the Wolves in a 14-7 hole with a little more than four minutes remaining in the half.
Buford made it to the Callaway 22-yard line in the closing moments of the half, but the drive ended with a failed fourth-down conversion attempt.
The Cavaliers ran out the clock, and they exited the field with a 14-7 lead.
“To go into halftime with a lead over Buford, it says a whole lot about our kids,” Wiggins said.
The Cavaliers got the ball first in the second half, but they couldn’t move it and the Wolves marched 66 yards for the tying touchdown, with Thomas scoring from five yards out.
Callaway’s next possession ended with an interception on a tipped pass, setting up a 6-yard touchdown run by Thomas, and Buford led 21-14 with 6:46 left in the third quarter.
After another Callaway three-and-out, Buford was kept out of the end zone, but a 44-yard field goal by Matthew Bonadies pushed the lead to 24-14.
Callaway’s defense didn’t allow any more points, but the offense was unable to get anything going against the Wolves.
In the fourth quarter, a punt of 60-plus yards by Freeman pinned Buford back at its 2-yard line.
The Wolves were able to move the ball all the way to the Cavaliers’ 20-yard line, though, before failing on fourth down.
The drive ate up more than five minutes, all but ending Callaway’s hopes.
“That was the first time these guys to had to do something really, really hard, being behind at halftime,” Buford coach Jess Simpson said. “You know it’s in them. We’ve seen them do it in years past, but to see them do it in this environment was just fun. It’s what high-school football is all about.”
Wiggins was proud of the way his players didn’t allow the game to get out of hand in the second half.
Usually when the Wolves start rolling, they leave a bunch of wreckage in their path and don’t look back.
But the Cavaliers hung tough and kept the outcome in doubt until late.
“The third quarter, Buford did get a little momentum,” Wiggins said. “They put the ball in the end zone a couple of times, but our kids, they kept fighting. We played an entire ballgame with great effort, and emotion.”