TUNNEL HILL -- A 2-yard touchdown run by Adrian Reyes with only 13 seconds left lifted the Northwest Whitfield High School football team to a 36-33 win over Fayette County Friday, and the Bruins advanced to the second round of the postseason -- the first time ever the program has reached the second round of the playoffs in consecutive years.
"We almost gave it away" -- surrendering a pair of onside kick recoveries to the Tigers -- "but it's survive and advance in the postseason," said Josh Robinson, Northwest's head coach. "We made mistakes, they made mistakes, but it doesn't matter. We won."
The Bruins survived and advanced to the second round. They'll travel to play Bainbridge on Friday at 7:30.
Down 33-29 with 2:58 remaining, the Bruins -- who earned the second seed in Region 7-4A with a 4-1 record in region play this year -- needed a touchdown to keep their season alive, and quarterback Owen Brooker marched them down the field, including picking up three yards with his legs on a 4th-and-2 at the Fayette County 8-yard line with 33 seconds remaining.
Brooker and his offensive teammates didn't panic on that game-winning drive, as "we knew we've been here before, the same scenario," he said. "Let's go down and score."
The Tigers prize the ground game, piling up nearly three times as many yards rushing this season as passing, but a botched quarterback-running back exchange on their opening drive led to a fumble recovered by Northwest's Jayden Santiago at the road team's 34. The Bruins were unable to capitalize on that turnover, but later in the first quarter Brooker found Ray Morrison streaking across the middle for a 55-yard gain to Fayette County's 20, and Reyes subsequently darted into the end zone -- telling his congratulatory teammates on the sideline "That's what I do, that's what I do" -- untouched for an 8-yard score that gave the Bruins a 7-0 first quarter lead.
On 4th-and-7 from Northwest's 33, Fayette County's Nicholas Taylor connected with Kyle Butler, who took it to the 11, and Javon Graham later plunged in from a yard out to tie the game with 4:25 left until halftime. The Tigers recovered an onside kick, and Graham's 5-yard touchdown run gave the Tigers the lead, although the extra point attempt failed.
The Tigers, who finished their season 6-5, made a statement on their opening drive of the second half, grinding 58 yards without ever attempting a pass, as Austin Jones ran in to push the lead to 19-7, although the two-point conversion failed. Northwest responded with alacrity, as Brooker and Hudson Gray connected on a 54-yard touchdown pass, and then Brooker's 32-yard touchdown run on the next Northwest possession gave the Bruins the lead back at 22-19 -- he and Morrison connected for two points -- with 4:13 left in the third quarter.
"We made that adjustment at halftime," Brooker said. "They were dropping eight in coverage, so we (decided) we'll run it more."
On 4th-and-5 from Northwest's 6-yard line, the Tigers eschewed a short field goal attempt that could have tied the game, instead running with Jones, and he was cut down short of the marker by Braxton Floyd. The Bruins gave the ball back, however, when Keion Bryant intercepted Brooker -- who came into Friday's Class 4A opening round playoff game with 23 touchdown passes this year against only four picks -- at the road team's 37.
The Tigers, the third seed in Region 5-4A, turned it back over on a backward pass picked up by Ike Ralston and returned to the 2. Brooker scored himself on the next play to stretch the margin to 10 with 9:54 left in the game. The Tigers refused to capitulate, however: a 4-yard touchdown by Graham with 5:45 remaining sliced the deficit to a field goal, and then Fayette County recovered their second onside kick of the game, setting the stage for Graham's fourth touchdown run -- a 3-yarder -- with 2:58 left that gave the Tigers a four-point lead.
This is the seventh-consecutive year the Bruins, now 8-3 on the year, have reached the postseason. Bainbridge, the Region 1-4A champion, defeated Islands 42-0 in the first round Friday. The Bruins reached the second round of the Class 4A playoffs last year as the second seed in Region 7-4A and finished with a record of 8-3, but the program has never reached the third round.
"Our offense got going in the second half, and our defense was solid all night, (except) for the last possession of the first half," Robinson said. "We have to cut down on our mistakes if we're going to win."
"I wouldn't put anything past this group," Brooker said. "We're warriors."