LAWRENECEVILLE - For three quarters, Central Gwinnett dominated Walton statistically but trailed in the only statistic that really mattered, the score.
For three quarters, Walton held the lead, with its largest margin at 24-3 early in the second half. For three quarters, Walton was in control of the Class AAAAA second round playoff game.
Then they played the fourth quarter.
Central erupted for 21 points in the final period, capped off by a 20-yard touchdown pass from Trip Pognant to Rolando Dyer with 35 seconds left to give the Black Knights a 27-24 win over the Raiders and a spot in the state quarterfinals next week vs. defending state champ Lowndes.
"I was thinking six, that's the game right there," Dyer said of his game-winning catch. "I had a lot of faith in my quarterback, my team and I knew we could do it."
The game, however, wasn't over after Dyer's TD. Walton took the ensuing kickoff and started on its own 38 with three timeouts and 29 seconds left. The first play was an incomplete pass and Jonathon Massaquoi sacked quarterback Ross Applegate on the next play to put Walton back at its own 26 for third-and-22.
Walton took its first timeout and Applegate's next pass was incomplete, putting Walton at fourth-and-22 with 15 seconds left. Applegate, who finished 5 of 9 passing with 88 yards and a TD, took the next snap and hit Jason Clary across the middle for a 29-yard gain to move the ball to Central's 45 with 5.8 seconds left.
Walton used its second timeout and called a pass play with Applegate hooking up with Michael Strickland at the 16. Strickland was tackled and called a timeout but the game clock had already expired.
The Walton sideline exploded in protest as Central fans stormed the field. The officials converged among the confusion and ruled that time had expired when Strickland went down, giving the Black Knights their first home playoff win since 1984.
"This is scaring me to death," Central head coach Bradley Warren said. "I'm not going to have any hair left after this. We didn't play too well in the first half, but we've been playing good in the second half the past couple of weeks. They (Walton) have won six in a row and we knew it would be tough."
Yusuf Holloway and Beau Johnson were a two-headed beast in Central's running attack, combining for 272 yards on the ground. Johnson had 131 yards on 24 carries while Holloway led the team with 141 yards and two TDs on 21 rushes.
Holloway played a huge role in the comeback, scoring twice in the fourth quarter on runs of 8 and 16 yards. His first score came with 10:35 left to play and his second was with 3:04 left in the game.
Despite Holloway's two scores, Walton still held the lead at 24-19. Walton took the kickoff after Holloway's second TD at Central's 49 when the Black Knights failed on an onside kick and tried to run out the clock.
Strickland, who led Walton with 113 yards and two TDs on 24 carries, ran the ball the next three plays and netted just three yards. Walton took a delay penalty and was set to punt with 1:25 left to play when the snap went through the hands and over the head of punter Orion Hall.
A mad scramble ensued and Central's Devin Long recovered the ball at Walton's 25. Two plays later, Pognant hit Dyer across the middle in the end zone for the game-winning score. Dyer finished with nine receptions and 84 yards and one score.
"We struggled all night and put up only three points in the first half," said Pognant, who finished with 72 yards and one TD on 13 of 21 passes. "At halftime we had to come out to separate the boys from the men. We came out with heart and our defense played well and we were able to grab the momentum."
Strickland, a University of Kentucky signee, nearly held off Central single-handedly. He took Walton's first play from scrimmage for a 66 yard run to Central's 2-yard line to set up his first TD and ran the opening kickoff of the second half 89 yards to Central's 1-yard line to set up his second score of the night.
Other than Strickland's output, Walton's offense struggled to move the ball as the Raiders netted just seven first downs to 19 for Central. Other than Walton's opening TD drive of 69 yards, the Raiders' other scoring drives came on short fields.
The second Raider TD went for 21 yards and was set up by a Central fumble late in the second quarter while the other TD drive was just one yard, set up by Strickland's kickoff return to open the second half.
"You've got to credit them (Central), they outplayed us in the second half," Walton head coach Ed Dudley said. "We were up three touchdowns and should have won that game."
Central now has a road date at Lowndes next week in the quarterfinals. It is the first time the Black Knights have been this deep in the playoffs since 1993.