Staff Photo: John Bohn Buford quarterback Sam Clay (5) recovers a fumble during the 1st quarter. Buford defeated Carver-Columbus 29-13 in a class AA state semifinal game played Friday in Columbus.
COLUMBUS -- Coming into its Class AA state semifinal game with Carver-Columbus, Buford hadn't really faced any adversity this season.
That all changed with four fumbles, a few dropped passes, a few untimely penalties and an uncharacteristic halftime deficit.
But in the second half, the top-ranked Wolves were able to hang onto the football and got back to doing what it did best.
They churned out 318 yards on the ground and wore down the third-ranked Tigers, with Nathan Staub, Sam Clay and Rick LeGrant finishing punishing drives with touchdown runs to help Buford overcome its mistakes for a 28-13 win Friday night at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium.
Andre Johnson ran for a game-high 130 yards, while the Wolves (13-0) held Carver (12-2) to 11 yards off total defense in the second half to earn a chance for their fifth straight state title next week at the Georgia Dome against No. 2 Calhoun, a team they've beaten the last three years.
But coach Jess Simpson and his team knew they couldn't overlook Carver this Friday, and Buford answered the many challenges the Tigers presented.
"I'm so proud for these guys," Simpson said. "They haven't been in a lot of these moments. When you get squeezed and get tested, you're going to see what comes out."
What came out was some poise that became necessary after an uncharacteristic first half.
It started like pretty much all of Buford's other games this season, with the Wolves dominating the first quarter, outgaining Carver 88-5 and grinding out six first downs to the Tigers' none.
But the signs that this wouldn't be an ordinary rout were already taking shape after Buford fumbled away its first possession at its own 41 and was forced to punt on its next possession after driving to the Tigers' 36.
Still, the Wolves seemed to take control by driving 52 yards in seven plays on its next possession early in the second quarter, with Dontravious Wilson breaking several tackles for a 17-yard run to put Buford up 7-0 with 9:12 left in the first half.
But a big play on Darius Williams' 68-yard catch and run of a Torrance McGee pass gave Carver a first down on the Buford 4.
Three plays later, McGee kept the ball on a bootleg and walked into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown to pull Carver even at 7-7 with 6:06 left in the half.
The Tigers then pounced on Buford's second fumble of the night at the Wolves' 36 on the next snap, and needed less than 2:30 to find the end zone again.
This time, it was little-used running back Noah Hickey who dove in from 2 yards out to put Carver in front 13-7 with 3:37 left in the half.
It was the first time the Wolves have trailed since their last loss -- a 14-0 setback to the same team on the same field 15 months earlier -- though they looked determined for the deficit not to last long.
Buford marched 63 yards down to the Carver 13, with Johnson's 47-yard burst setting the Wolves up in the red zone with 36.7 seconds left in the half.
But a mishandled snap led to the third Buford fumble of the half, and the second recovered by Carver linebacker DeQuandre Roberts, to help the Tigers take possession with 23.9 seconds left, and head into intermission with the lead.
Yet, there was no panic in the locker room at halftime.
"We knew what we were doing wrong," Johnson said. "We were beating them on the ground. So at halftime, we just came in and said, 'OK, we need to stop the turnovers, hold onto the ball, keep it secured and keep pounding away like we were and put more points on the board."
And the Wolves did just that after the defense held Carver, which was missing leading rusher Marquez Holloway in the second half after suffering an injury to the upper chest late in the first half, to a three and out on its first possession of the third quarter.
Buford proceeded to march 57 yards over 12 plays, chewing up 6:10 off the clock in the process.
The drive was extended with an encroachment penalty drawn by late substitutions, and a clutch, 17-yard completion from Clay to Staub on third and 14 to the Carver 22, and ended when Staub barreled in from 5 yards out to give Buford the lead back at 14-13 after David Petroni's extra point with 4:06 left in the quarter.
And after seizing momentum, Buford wouldn't let it go.
Rick LeGrant's fumble recovery at the Carver 36 set up a 33-yard bootleg for a TD by Clay to push the lead to 21-13 with 52.7 points left in the third.
"The way the Buford mentality is, we've been waiting for a game like this," LeGrant said. "Down at halftime, to come back and regenerate and do what we do. But after that, we know we had to handle our business."
And the running game made sure the Wolves handled that business in the fourth quarter with a nine-play, 66-yard drive that LeGrant ended with a 15-yard TD run to make the score 28-13 with 2:14 and seal the win.