Staff Photo: John Bohn Grayson defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (1) sacks Lowndes quarterback Lance Jarriel (12) while Grayson defensive linebacker Jack Banda (82) sails by during the fourth quarter of the second round of state football playoffs Friday.
LOGANVILLE -- When the final buzzer sounded, Grayson coach Mickey Conn could think of just one word to describe the Rams' 25-17 win over visiting Lowndes.
That word was "character."
It took a lot of it for the No 2 state-ranked Rams' to overcome two early turnovers, two missed extra points, penalties at key times and a game comeback attempt by the visiting Vikings and finally come away with the win Friday at Grayson Community Stadium to move into the state quarterfinals for the fifth straight season.
"It shows a lot of character in a team when their backs are against the wall (with) turnovers, penalties, and they keep battling," said Conn, whose Rams (12-0) will play host next week to West Forsyth, an upset winner over No. 3 Hillgrove on Friday. "I think it says a lot for our character and ... how bad they wanted to win."
Grayson had to dig down deep Friday after falling behind in a game for the first time during the first quarter.
But a run of 19 straight points -- keyed by the running of Wayne Gallman and Robert Nkemdiche, who combined for 118 of the team's 135 rushing yards -- helped the Rams build a fourth-quarter lead before the defense held off Lowndes' (8-4) late charge.
"We're a team that (doesn't) give up," said Nkemdiche, who scored three touchdowns on offense and had his usual strong game on defense, including a sack late on Lowndes' final drive of the game. "We practice hard all week. We keep pushing it. We practice not to give up. We practice for (situations) like that. So, it wasn't a big thing for us."
Grayson actually got off to a great start, with Nick Schuessler hooking up with a wide-open Marcus Lindquist for a 43-yard scoring strike on the game's first possession.
The point after missed, but the Rams had a 6-0 lead just five plays and 2:25 after the opening kickoff.
But they had a hard time holding onto the ball the rest of the first quarter, allowing Lowndes to jump out in front.
The Vikings looked like they had cashed in on a fumble recovery on the Grayson 29 when Nick Burgman dashed in for a score on fourth-and-goal from the 3, but a holding penalty forced them to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Sean Smith to cut the Rams' lead to 6-3 with 4:10 left in the opening frame.
But they did capitalize when Grayson coughed up the ensuing kickoff on its own 21.
Lance Jarriel hit Josh Clemons sprinting across the middle for a 17-yard scoring strike on a third-down conversion, putting the Vikings in front 10-6 with 2:29 left in the quarter.
However, the Rams began to flex their muscles on both side of the line in the second quarter.
They held Lowndes to a single yard of total offense in the period, and more importantly, the defense and special teams gave the offense a short field of its own twice to give it a chance to get the lead back.
After taking a punt on the Vikings' 43 early the second quarter, the Rams marched the distance in 10 plays -- overcoming another fumble that they recovered and picking up a fourth-down conversion -- before Nkemdiche powered in from 2 yards out.
The extra point again failed after bouncing off the right upright, but Grayson had the lead back at 12-10 with 5:10 left in the first half.
The Rams then got one of their first-quarter turnovers back when Gallman, whose fumble set up Lowndes' field goal, sped in from the right side and swatted the ball away from Jurriel before he could throw.
"You can't always dwell on that one (bad) play," said Gallman, who finished with a game-high 61 yard rushing on 10 carries. "You just always have to come back to the next one. The next play matters."
Gallman's big play allowed Jack Banda to pounce on the loose ball on the Lowndes 13, and two Nkemdiche carries, the latter from 6 yards away, put Grayson back in the end zone.
This time Callen Rhodes successfully booted the extra point with 1:58 left in the half, sending the Rams into intermission with a 19-10 lead.
The lead reached what looked like a comfortable 25-10 after Nkemdiche's third TD of the game from 3 yards out, followed by a missed two-point conversion, with 10:21 to play.
But Lowndes began to show a little character of its own.
After being held to just 70 yards of offense to that point, the Vikings found a way to keep themselves alive, with Jarriel completing 4 of 8 passes for 47 yards and scrambling for 11 yards to pick up one of four fourth-down conversions on a 15-play, 73-yard drive.
And when Mike Moore dove in from a yard out to end the drive, Grayson's lead was just 25-17 with 4:31 to play.
The Vikings then held the Rams on a three-and-out and got one last chance, taking over at their own 34 with 2:38 remaining.
Once again, Jarriel was able to make things happen, scrambling for 12 yards to pick up another fourth-down conversion and then hitting Clemons to bring Lowndes to the Grayson 30.
But Nkemdiche charged in from the right side and dropped the Vikings quarterback for a 12-yard loss, followed by another combined sack from Gallman and Jake Mueller to put the ball back at the 46 with the clock winding down.
And when Jarriel's last pass fell harmlessly to the ground as the clock ran out, the Rams finally could celebrate.
"It was like a big old relief," Nkemdiche said about the game's final play. "It's always a good thing beating a South Georgia team. This was a big win for us. ... I just hope we can keep going and get to the state championship."