Sandy Creek hasn’t won a state title since 2012. But the Patriots showed they still have the heart of a champion, rallying from a 17-point halftime deficit to stun Marist, 23-20, in overtime in the first round of the Class AAAA state playoffs.
Junior quarterback Bryant Walker threw his second touchdown of the game for the winning score, as he gave a play-action fake to his right, then rolled left and fired a 14-yard dart to senior tight end Parker Mallett, who had found a soft spot between two War Eagles defenders in the middle of the end zone.
Walker’s first touchdown pass came on the same play call on the Patriots’ opening drive of the second half, which started the comeback. For Sandy Creek head coach Chip Walker, the play was a double dose of happiness – one as a coach and one as a father.
“I coach the quarterbacks and it makes you feel good that your quarterback is learning and sees things, and knows how to read who he should throw to instead of throwing to a pre-determined receiver,” Walker said. “As a father, it makes you proud. It’s a blessing to be able to coach your son and have that relationship.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these kids,” Walker said. “They could have shut it down after the first half. Marist has a great team. But we came out in the second half and played about as good a second half as you can play.”
Sandy Creek (8-3) hasn’t lost a first round playoff game since a 45-14 defeat at Flowery Branch in 2006. But it looked like the Patriots would make an early exit after Marist rolled to a 17-0 first half lead on short touchdown runs by senior quarterback Jack Dinges and a 30-yard field goal by Timmy Bleekrode.
Dinges ran the War Eagles’ wing-T offense effectively for the first two quarters, particularly on mid-line option runs, which he mixed with handoffs to bruising fullback Michael Addicks.
“Anytime you go against the triple option it takes you a while to get used to the speed of it,” Walker said of his defense, which looked out of it for most of the first half. “But we were hoping that would have happened after the first series, not the first half.”
The Patriot defense responded in the second half, holding Marist without a first down in the third quarter, and Sandy Creek pulled to within 17-14 early in the fourth quarter on a 10-yard touchdown run by Jaelen Greene.
But Marist got its offense going on its next possession. The War Eagles went on one of their textbook, time-consuming drives moving from their own 20-yard line to the Sandy Creek 20, eating up more than six minutes in the process.
On fourth-and-three with just over four minutes left in regulation, Marist head coach Alan Chadwick decided to go for the first down instead of kicking a field goal. In the first half, Chadwick elected to take points off the board and go for a touchdown after Bleekrode was run into after nailing a 30-yard field goal on fourth-and-six. After the five yard penalty moved the ball to the Sandy Creek 9-yard line, Addicks converted the fourth-and-one with a four-yard run. After a negative running play, Dinges scored from seven yards out.
But this time, Sandy Creek’s defense held, as Dinges’ pass attempt on a rollout fell incomplete as he was being tackled. On the Patriots’ first play from their 20-yard line, Walker found Javan Hawes down the far sideline for a 45-yard gain to the Marist 35-yard line. Seven plays later, senior kicker Benjamin Rutland drilled a 30-yard field goal with 1:28 left to tie the game.
Last season, Rutland missed to short field goals in the Patriots’ second-round playoff loss in overtime at Bainbridge.
“I’m so happy and proud of him,” Walker said. “To come back and make that kick this year, after missing two from about the same distance last season says a lot about his heart.”
Marist’s Hail Mary into the end zone was batted down as regulation time expired. Sandy Creek won the overtime coin toss and elected to go on defense first. Bleekrode’s 23-yard field goal gave Marist a 20-17 lead, but the advantage was short lived, as Bryant Walker’s winning touchdown pass to Mallett came on the Patriots’ second play into the extra period.
For Marist, Friday’s loss was the first time the War Eagles were defeated at home in the first round of the playoffs since 2011. After starting this season 2-2, Marist rallied down the stretch winning five of its last six games.
“It’s a testament to these players and coaches, that they dedicated themselves to getting better and improving each week,” Chadwick said, as he watched his team walk to the locker room for the last time this season. “I don’t know what I’m going to say to them, to be honest. No one feels as hurt for them as I do.”