ATLANTA — The Marietta players and coaches knew they had one distinct advantage when they faced Lowndes in the Class AAAAAAA state championship game Saturday night.
The Vikings had never seen a receiver group like the Blue Devils possessed, and it showed.
Marietta opened the game on a 14-play, 79-yard drive that took 6:19 off the clock and set the tone for the remainder of the first half.
The Blue Devils used their advantage by getting their skill players — running back Kimani Vidal, tight end Arik Gilbert and wide receiver Ricky White — in space with short passes in the flat and quick throws to the sideline. That let them take advantage of their quickness and size advantage against the Lowndes linebackers and secondary.
Marietta quarterback Harrison Bailey completed eight of nine passes on the drive for 59 yards, but it was the first throw to Vidal — an 11-yard swing pass — that was the key that helped the Tennessee commit get into a rhythm.
“The coaches got us right with a great opening script,” Bailey said. “After the first first down, the jitters left and everything came together.”
Marietta coach Richard Morgan said the opening drive featured a lot of four- and five-receiver sets that Lowndes had not had to deal with in its run-up to the state championship game.
“If we got the ball out and got the blocking angles we needed, we knew we could move the ball,” Morgan said. “By getting the ball out quick, it also neutralized their pass rush a little bit.”
Bailey connected on his first four passes, on his way to finishing the game 22-of-31 for 271 yards. His first incomplete pass set up the first second key play of the drive, a third-and-7 from the 48-yard line in which he connected with Gilbert for 12 yards to move the chains.
On third-and-1 and the Lowndes 31, Vidal had one of his biggest runs of the night when he went around the right side for a 7-yard gain and the second of three big third-down conversions.
Ironically, it was the third-down plays where Marietta went away from the script and returned to what it did best.
“On the conversions, we went back to our base stuff,” Morgan said. “We went back to working over-the-middle and dig routes.”
The last of the third-down conversions came on a pass over the middle to Vidal, who broke one tackle and took it down to the 6-yard line.
“They had to cover a lot of the field,” Gilbert said of the Lowndes defense. “We just had to find the holes. Coming through the other side of the playoff bracket, I think they saw a lot of running teams. They hadn’t seen anything like us.”
A pass-interference penalty in the end zone gave the Blue Devils another first down at the 2, and Vidal scored the first of his two rushing touchdowns on the next play.
The quick touchdown put Lowndes back on its heels. It also opened up other throws later in the half, including a 44-yarder to Gilbert on the right sideline and a 22-yarder over the middle to White, in which Bailey faked one defensive back so hard he tripped over his own feet trying to turn around.
Gilbert finished the night with 11 catches for 146 yards, while White and Vidal each finished with five catches for 72 and 34 yards, respectively.
“We stayed together,” Bailey said, “and now we’re state champions.”