Against a stingy Dacula defense that had allowed just 35 points in its past three games, Walton found itself in a dogfight on Friday night on the road.
Its highly-touted offense, which had topped 40 in each of the previous three games, struggled to find any room in the running game, and the home team was proving more was finding just enough plays to hold a slim advantage into the fourth quarter.
Enter Raiders quarterback Austin Kirksey.
The junior signal caller passed for 355 yards and three touchdowns, ran for 41 yards and two more scores, and the Raiders found enough offense to top Dacula 34-20 to keep their spotless record intact.
“They’re a fantastic team,” Walton coach Daniel Brunner said of Dacula, which is just 1-4 after five weeks despite losing by 14 points or fewer in its four losses. “They’re going to make a run later this year. That record doesn’t say enough about what kind of team this is.”
Friday’s contest underscored Brunner’s statement.
The Dacula defense offered no room for Walton to establish its running game the entire night. The Falcons totaled just 89 rushing yards on 31 carries, only 15 yards of which came in the first half. By halftime, the two teams were tied at 7-7, and Dacula was receiving to begin the third quarter.
That drive proved fruitful for the Falcons, who drove 70 yards on nine plays to take a 14-7 lead after a 12-yard run by quarterback Shayne Buckingham.
Despite the struggles in the ground game, though, Brunner said the team was committed to banging its head against the wall to keep Falcons defenders close to the line of scrimmage. The result was plenty of room downfield for Kirksey and his trio of dangerous wide receivers.
Kirksey hit Chandler Smith for a 75-yard touchdown pass just three plays after Dacula took the lead. A missed extra point allowed the Falcons to maintain a slim 14-13 lead.
After Walton’s B.J. Gibson intercepted a Buckingham pass on the ensuing Dacula possession, however, the Raiders were again in business on offense. They took over at the Dacula 49-yard line, made up most of the distance on a 29-yard pass from Kirksey to Kendall Alford, and punched it in on a 6-yard run by Kirksey to take a 19-14 lead.
Walton fell briefly behind when Falcons running back Jalen Perry took a handoff around the left end and outran every defender for a 61-yard touchdown, but needed just two plays to reclaim the lead when Kirksey connected with Alford, wide-open in the center of the field, for a 55-yard touchdown pass.
Kirksey added a 14-yard touchdown run with 5:33 left in the game to give Walton a two-possession advantage, which it would hold for the rest of the game.
“They were loading the box against us, so we knew the passes would be there,” Kirksey said. “I just got into a rhythm with my receivers, and we were able to turn it into some points.”
Alford finished the game with seven receptions for 144 yards and a touchdown, and Smith hauled in three passes for 144 and a touchdown.
Brunner stressed the importance of sticking with the running game, despite the apparent lack of success, in the second half.
“We knew it was going to be difficult to run,” he said. “But we stayed dedicated to it, and it allowed us some open passing lanes throughout the game.”
Highly-touted junior wide receiver Dominick Blaylock hauled in Kirksey’s other touchdown pass, a 10-yard strike to tie the game at 7-7 late in the first half. Blaylock, who is currently committed to the University of Georgia, finished with five catches for 62 yards and the score.
Buckingham passed for 114 yards and a touchdown, a 39-yarder to Kenny Severe for the game’s first points, and rushed for 35 and a score. Perry totaled 80 yards and a score on the ground.
Both Walton and Dacula have a bye next week, but return to the field to open region play on Oct. 6 at home against Cherokee and on the road against Apalachee, respectively.