Griffin made sure his coach’s faith in him paid off, retrieving the punt from his own 15-yard line and dodging several Collins Hill tacklers before racing down the right sideline for a touchdown that put the Indians ahead for good, on the way to a 35-32 win in Friday’s Class AAAAAA quarterfinal.
“Our normal punt returner was hurt, and when the punt went over Taj’s head, I was concerned. But he was just setting them up,” Hockman said.
The regular returner, T.J. Rahming, was nursing a groin injury, and Rahmoni Parsons was the one who actually played much of the game in the returner’s role.
But as McEachern prepared to field the punt, Hockman decided to go with the talented playmaker known for his breakaway speed.
“The coaches inserted me in there and I wanted to go in there and make things happen,” Griffin said. “I continued to have faith in my team and God to try to get the win. Making the semifinals means a lot, and I’m proud of my entire team and coaches.”
Griffin finished the night with a game-high 144 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground, in addition to the game-winning return.
After McEachern (11-2) grabbed the lead, Collins Hill was able to get into the red zone with 11 seconds left in the game, and within position for a game-tying field goal. But instead of attempting the kick, Collins Hill coach Kevin Reach decided to go for the win on second down, and Tyler Herman’s pass was picked off at the 2-yard line by the Indians’ Glenn Frazier with 4 seconds left.
It was Herman’s second interception of the game.
The win gave McEachern its third road playoff win. The Indians have been road warriors, going 5-2 since playing their last home game Oct. 11.
“We’ve been coming together as a team and correcting things,” Hockman said. “The team has responded and they have been victories where everyone has contributed. I’m really proud of them.”
In the semifinals for the first time since 1998, McEachern will face North Gwinnett — which edged Hillgrove to prevent an all-Powder Springs semifinal — for a shot at the state championship. Both teams are No. 3 seeds, leaving the host to be determined through a coin flip Sunday at the Georgia High School Association’s headquarters in Thomaston.
“We’ve received unbelievable support from the McEachern community all year,” Hockman said. “This is what high school sports is all about.”
McEachern dominated the 2½ quarters of the contest, and a 1-yard touchdown run by Alizee Chubbs early in the third quarter gave the Indians 28-10 lead, their largest lead of the contest.
Collins Hill (11-2) cut the lead to 28-18 with less than a minute left in the third quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run by Tyler Henderson.
During the Indians’ next offensive possession, the Eagles benefited from two of McEachern’s six personal-foul penalties on the night, and Dwayne Smith returned a punt 41 yards for a touchdown to cut the score to 28-25 with 9:26 left.
McEachern had 13 penalties for 135 yards in the contest. Collins Hill had 60 penalty yards on six fouls.
“We played a clean game in the first half, but there were a lot of penalties on both teams later in the game,” Hockman said. “We overcame it and just made plays.”
A 36-yard touchdown catch by Henderson with 6:28 left gave Collins Hill a 32-28 lead before Griffin’s punt return for the win.
The Eagles got on the scoreboard first when Paul Ille kicked a 27-yard field goal on their first possession of the contest to make the score 3-0.
McEachern responded with a touchdown on a 1-yard dive by Chubbs on fourth-and-goal midway through the first quarter.
The Indians increased their lead to 14-3 on an 11-yard touchdown run by Griffin early in the second quarter. Griffin spun past several Eagles defenders before entering the end zone.
McEachern earned strong field position on the drive when Frazier made the first of his two interceptions against Herman.
McEachern continued the offensive assertion with a 45-yard touchdown pass from Bailey Hockman to Rahming midway through the second quarter, increasing the lead to 21-3.
Hockman had a team-high 150 passing yards on 10 completions. He split time with previous starter Ty Clemons, who saw his game action for the first time since injuring his ankle against Hillgrove three weeks ago.