Clinging to a 21-18 lead 6:08 to play, the No. 2 ranked Cedar Grove Saints (12-2) put on their best defensive stand of the night stopping a Greater Atlanta Christian scoring threat with a goal line interception by senior linebacker Isaiah Ratcliff at Buck Godfrey Stadium on Friday night.
A bad sequence of plays had given Greater Atlanta Christian a big swing in momentum including a 90-yard kickoff return by Zac Mixon at the end of the third quarter that countered a Cedar Grove touchdown to close the gap to three. Two possessions later a Tyler Curland 40-yard punt was downed inside the 10 pinning Cedar Grove at its own nine-yard,
A bad snap on second down pushed the Saints back to their own one and on third down the ball came loose at the seven where the Spartans (12-2) fell on the ball to set up what would be a game-changing defensive stand by the Saints.
Tyler McBride was stuffed on two runs up the middle to force a third and goal at the seven. Spartan quarterback Jackson Hardy dropped back and looked for his tight end in the end zone. Ratcliff had faked a blitz and dropped in coverage, snagged the pass at the goal line, spun upfield and raced out to the Saints’ 35 with 4:35.
Cedar Grove put together an eight-play, 65-yard drive with the final six plays all on the legs of senior running back Chavon Wright. Wright finished off the drive three minutes and 42 seconds later as he got through the Spartans defensive front on the way to a 26-yard touchdown run.
The touchdown and Louis Domingeuz’s PAT extended the lead to 28-18 with just 42.7 seconds to play.
Hardy led the Spartans down the field with two nice passes to Christian Thomas for gains of 24 and 26 yards to the Saints’ 13. He got one last shot at the end zone as time ran out, but the pass went incomplete as the horn sounded sending the Saints and their fans into a celebration.
The Saints opened the scoring on a 62-yard run around the left side by Rashod Dubinion with 6:57 left in the first quarter. Dominguez was good on the PAT for a 7-0 lead.
Greater Atlanta Christian answered driving 54 yards before having to settle for a 31-yard, Tyler Curland field goal to pull within 7-3 with 1:58 left in the period.
Cedar Grove opened the second quarter with a 10-play, 63-yard drive that ate up 4:51 of the clock and ended on a quick swing pass from Austin Smith to Langston White that covered 11 yards for the touchdown. Rodjel Caine hit the PAT to make it 14-3 in favor of the Saints.
Even though the Saints put together another almost five-minute drive before the half they quick kicked with 35 seconds to play and the Spartans ran out the half.
The Spartans’ defense stopped Cedar Grove’s opening possession of the second half and marched 83 yards in 14 plays to score on a two-yard run by Tyler McBride with 2:47 left in the third quarter. Hardy passed to Choe Bryant-Strother for the two-point conversion to close the gap to 14-11.
Cedar Grove answered back with a five-yard quarterback keeper by Smith into the end zone. Caine hit the PAT to push the lead back out to 10 points at 21-11 before Mixon’s 90-yard kickoff return turned the momentum back in favor of the Spartans. Smith’s touchdown was set up a by a 41-yard completion to Coreyon Cone who kept his concentration as the pass bounced off the defender’s helmet and into his hands just inside the sideline for the catch.
Chavon Wright put up his third consecutive 100-yard rushing game in the playoffs as he carried the ball 21 times for 106 yards and the game-clinching touchdown with 42.7 seconds left for his 20th rushing touchdown of the season. Dubinion finished with 78 yards and a touchdown on seven carries as the Saints came up just two-yards shy of the 200-yard rushing mark in the game.
Austin Smith finished eight of 10 passing for 137 yards and a touchdown through the air and six carries for 25 yards and touchdown on the ground.
Jackson Hardy finished the night hitting on 15 of 26 passes for 170 yards, one touchdown and one interception to lead the Spartans.
The defending state champions Saints move on to face Crisp County (11-3), a 14-6 winner of Jenkins of Savannah, on Saturday, December 14 at 1:00 pm at Georgia State Stadium in the Class 3A state championship game.