Whitewater running back Kendall Conley carried the ball 36 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns, and quarterback Jay Ashley recovered his own fumble for an 18-yard score to help the Wildcats (12-1) advance to the state semifinals for the first time in their history. They will host Gainesville.
Allatoona (11-2), which rallied for wins in each of the previous two rounds, fell in the state quarterfinals for the second year in a row. The Buccaneers saw several critical drives stall due to turnovers, penalties and missed opportunities on dropped passes.
Two of their three turnovers resulted in 10 points for Whitewater, which held 1,000-yard running backs T.J. Herron and Josh Bettistea in check for much of the game. Herron had 15 carries for 72 yards, while Bettistea rushed eight times for 13 yards.
Any time the Allatoona defense managed to stop Whitewater, punter Austin Barnard proved to be just as valuable a weapon as Conley, sending punts deep into Buccaneers territory and forcing them to drive almost the length of the field to score. Conley punted four times for a 45.5-yard average.
“We never got into a rhythm offensively,” Allatoona coach Gary Varner said. “We had the ball at the 1. We had a fumble. We had a big penalty. We had four drops. It was just a mess from the very beginning.”
The Buccaneers were held without a touchdown for the first time in 51 games — since the first game of their inaugural varsity season in 2008.
After neither team scored in the first half, Whitewater began to take momentum following a 75-yard, 12-play drive on its first possession of the second period. A 7-yard pass completion to Jonathan Womack on third down extended the drive, which led to Conley’s 1-yard touchdown run.
Clarence Soleberry returned the ensuing kickoff 48-yards, and a 15-yard penalty for a horse-collar tackle was tacked on at the end of the run, giving Allatoona good field position at the Whitewater 36.
But Matt Ogle intercepted Jeremy Uzee’s screen pass on the third play of the drive, and a pass-interference penalty on the Buccaneers eventually led to Ashley’s 18-yard touchdown run on a botched snap, giving the Wildcats a 14-0 lead with 32 seconds left in the half.
Ashley couldn’t handle the snap on third-and-5, but he scooped up the ball, ran around the right side, broke a tackle and rushed in for the score.
“The defense gave us chances to be in the game, and we go down two scores at halftime when it should have been a 7-0 game or maybe even a 7-3 game,” Varner said. “We just could never get going. Anything that could go wrong went wrong. It was just bad preparation by myself on offense, really.”
An Allatoona fumble midway through the third period led to a 38-yard field goal from Sam Leathers and a 17-0 Wildcat advantage with 1:32 left in the quarter.
A 58-yard kickoff return from Alex Ison set up Allatoona at the Whitewater 39, and Quinten James converted on fourth-and-1 at the 9 to set up the Buccaneers for first-and-goal at the 4. A 2-yard loss and a 5-yard penalty moved the ball back to the 11, and two incomplete passes set up Nate Shaw for a 27-yard field goal with 8:25 left in the game.
Allatoona had one last chance to get something going offensively, but it couldn’t convert on fourth-and-11 at its own 10, resulting in a turnover on downs.
Four plays later, Conley rushed in from 1-yard out for the final 24-3 score with 53 seconds left.
Regardless of the outcome, Varner was still proud of his team and its season.
“It’s unbelievable the fight these guys have had all year,” he said. “We lost two games this year. It just didn’t happen for them. These seniors surpassed everyone’s expectations. They worked so hard, and they just gutted out. (Whitewater was) a really good football team. We just came up short (Friday) and didn’t execute.”