Tift County overcame terrible field position in the first half to take the lead in its second-round Class AAAAAAA playoff game Friday at Hillgrove.
The Blue Devils had less ground to cover in the second half and built a 31-14 lead before holding on for a 31-24 victory and advancing to the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2006.
Tift County (11-1), the second seed from Region 1, will travel to Snellville next Friday to take on Region 7 champion Brookwood, which advanced with a 28-23 victory over Milton. Hillgrove, the Region 3 champion, finished 8-4.
Tift County led 14-7 at halftime but scored on its first three possessions of the second half to increase the lead to 31-14 with 11:08 to play. Hillgrove pulled close with 10 points in the final five minutes and got the ball back one last time at its 26-yard line with 46 seconds to play but was unable to cross midfield.
“Hillgrove’s a great football team, but any time you get to this point in the season everybody’s good,” Tift County coach Ashley Anders said. “We knew that it was going to be a four-quarter ballgame, and I’m glad it ended up the way that it did.”
Tift County’s average starting field position in the first half was its 11-yard line. In the second half, the Blue Devils’ six possessions started, on average, at their 42.
Tift County quarterback Griffin Collier, who came in averaging 231 yards passing, was held a little below his average, finishing with 17 completions on 30 attempts for 174 yards and a touchdown. And receiver Rashod Bateman, who had 1,358 receiving yards in the first 11 games and is within reach of the state’s single-season record, had seven catches but for just 25 yards.
But they had plenty of help from the running game, which had 240 yards on 42 carries. Mike Jones led the way with 147 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, and Shamel Johnson ran 16 times for 86 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson’s 20-yard touchdown run with 7:37 to play in the third quarter gave the Blue Devils a 21-7 lead. Hillgrove answered with a touchdown on a 71-yard screen pass from Hunter Arters to Trevarus Walker, but Tift County got a 27-yard field goal from Fernando Ramirez and an 18-yard touchdown run from Jones on its next two possessions to regain control at 31-14.
From there, it was a matter of holding on.
Hillgrove punter Jason Pierce made field position difficult early for Tift County, pinning the Blue Devils back at their own 1-yard line to start three of their five first-half possessions. But Tift County was up to the challenge, driving 99 yards for touchdowns twice in the second quarter.
An 18-yard run by Johnson capped an 11-play drive that give Tift County a 7-0 lead with 11:01 remaining in the second quarter
After Hillgrove tied the score on a 24-yard pass from Arters to Chigoziem Okonkwo, the Blue Devils regained the lead with a 12-play, 99-yard drive that ended with Collier’s 5-yard pass to Bateman with 30 seconds to play in the half.
The long drives also produced a considerable advantage in total offense for the Blue Devils, who outgained Hillgrove 243-114 in the first two quarters.
Tift County finished with 414 yards to Hillgrove’s 349. Arters was 15-of-28 passing for 298 yards and three touchdowns. Jaylen McCollough was the leading rusher with 41 yards on seven carries.
“The majority of the credit for that right there is our offensive line,” Anders said of the long first-half drives.. “I mean, they came to play. They played assignment football. … I was really proud of those guys.”
Tift County – 0-14-7-10 – 31
Hillgrove – 0-7-7-10 – 24
TC – Shamel Johnson 18 run (Fernando Ramirez kick)
H – Chigoziem Okonkwo 24 pass from Hunter Arters (Luis Garcia-Cano kick)
TC – Rashod Bateman 5 pass from Griffin Collier (Ramirez kick)
TC – Johnson 20 run (Ramirez kick)
H – Trevarus Walker 71 pass from Arters (Garcia-Cano kick)
TC – Ramirez 27 field goal
TC – Mike Jones 18 run (Ramirez kick)
H – Jalen Jackson 8 pass from Arters (Garcia-Cano kick)
H – Garcia-Cano 32 field goal