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Storied programs square off in Class AAA semifinals

Photo: David McGregor  Buford's Donte' Gordon (36) rushes for a first down during the second half of the Wolves 31-7 victory over Carver-Columbus in the quarterfinals of the Class AAA state playoffs.

Photo: David McGregor Buford's Donte' Gordon (36) rushes for a first down during the second half of the Wolves 31-7 victory over Carver-Columbus in the quarterfinals of the Class AAA state playoffs.

BUFORD AT CARTERSVILLE

When: Today, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Cartersville High School (I-85 South to I-285 West to I-75 North. Take Exit 288 and turn left onto East Main Street (Ga. Highway 113). Go about 1.7 miles and make a slight right turn onto East Church Street. The school is 3/10 of a mile ahead on the right)

Coaches: Jess Simpson, Buford; Frank Barden, Cartersville

Records: Buford, 10-3, No. 3 in Class AAA; Cartersville 13-0, No. 5 in Class AAA

Last week: Buford beat Carver-Columbus 31-7; Cartersville beat Thomson 21-13

Winner plays: St. Pius X-North Hall winner

Buford leaders:

• Rushing: Dontravious Wilson, 1,052 yards

• Passing: Taylor Mitchell, 786 yards

• Receiving: Tre’ Neal, 364 yards

• Tackles: Korie Rogers, 81 tackles

• Interceptions: Rogers and Thomas Wilson, 4

• Sacks: Donte Gordon, 8

Cartersville leaders:

• Rushing: Brandon Long, 589 yards

• Passing: Brooks Barden, 2,672 yards

• Receiving: Hayes Linn, 568 yards

Game-by-game:

Buford Wolves (10-3)

at Elbert Co. W 14-3

Gainesville L 19-15

Hancock Central W 43-0

at Banks Co. L Forfeit

West Hall L Forfeit

at White Co. W 49-14

Dawson Co. W 34-3

Fannin Co. W 51-0

at East Hall W 49-6

North Hall W 45-16

Cedar Grove W 41-27

at North Oconee W 13-0

at Carver-Col. W 31-7

Cartersville Purple Hurricanes (13-0)

Darlington W 28-7

at Cass W 24-20

Rockmart W 38-6

at North Murray W 40-22

at Coahulla Crk W 63-7

Lakeview-FO W 42-16

Gordon Central W 41-19

Adairsville W 45-3

at Sonraville W 56-7

at Ringgold W 42-7

Jackson Co. W 56-21

Blessed Trinity W 24-23

Thomson W 21-13

Tonight's Class AAA state semifinal game between Buford and Cartersville matches two of Georgia's oldest and more storied high school football programs against one another.

Yet, the No. 3 state-ranked Wolves (10-3) and the fifth-ranked Purple Hurricanes (13-0) have surprisingly met just twice before -- in back-to-back regular season contests in 2006 and '07, with Buford winning both.

Still, both Buford coach Jess Simpson and Cartersville's Frank Barden expect a potentially classic confrontation when their two teams meet tonight at 7:30 at Weinman Stadium in Cartersville with a trip to next week's state championship game on the line.

"I know Frank Barden very well," Simpson said. "He's been a successful coach. He won his first state championship over there in 1999 when he had (former Auburn standout and current Miami Dolphins running back) Ronnie Brown. So he knows how to win."

Barden has a similar knowledge and respect for Buford that goes even further than the Wolves success on the field.

"It's a neat matchup," Barden said. "I coached two of their assistants (defensive backs coach David Snell and defensive ends coach Bryan Rogers) when I was (an assistant coach) at Stephens County, and I've known Jess for a number of years. And these two programs have had a lot of success for a long time. It ought to be fun to watch."

While most fans around metro Atlanta are well aware of Buford's history -- eight state titles, including six straight appearances in the state semifinals -- Cartersville has a rich football heritage of its own.

And it goes even beyond Barden, who has led the Purple Hurricanes to 12 postseason appearances -- including the 1999 Class AA state title and two other trips to the state semifinals -- in his 17 seasons as coach.

In all, Cartersville has won two state titles and made three other semifinals appearances, and has boasted some of big names that have gone on to college and professional stardom.

But while most of the biggest names from he program's past includes running backs like Brown, Georgia Tech's all-time leading rusher Robert Lavette and former Georgia standout Keith Henderson, this year's Purple Hurricanes team is known more for their aerial assault.

Quarterback Brooks Barden, Frank's son, has completed 166 of 295 passes with just two interceptions -- both in last week's 21-13 quarterfinal win over top-ranked Thomson -- for 2,672 yards and 38 TDs this season, with many of those passes being spread around receivers Hayes Linn (38-568, 8 TDs), T.L. Ford (29-537, 9 TDs) and Mark Quattlebaum (29-415, 6 TDs).

"They've got all kinds of weapons in their two-deep (lineup)," Simpson said of Cartersville. "Their first and second units don't look very different from heath other. ... They're 13-0 for a reason. It's an awesome challenge for us."

As big a challenge as the Purple Hurricanes passing attack is, Buford's defense will pose a reciprocally large challenge.

Barden knows his team's strength matches up with some of the biggest strengths of the Wolves, who have 14 interceptions by nine different players this season, led by three each from Korie Rogers and Thomas Wilson, and have recorded 43 quarterback sacks from 13 different players, including eight from Donte Gordon and seven each from Rogers and Mikey Bart.

"They've got a great defense," Barden said of Buford. "They're very well coached and they're equally good against the run and the pass. Offensively, it's the same old Buford. They'll line up and power the ball right at you.

"This will be just like all playoff games in that whoever makes the least amount of mistakes and does well in the kicking game will win. Those are two big keys."

Indeed, minimizing mistakes like turnovers and penalties could play a huge factor in the game, and Buford has been just as good as Cartersville at doing so this season, with just the Wolves having lost just 11 fumbles, while quarterbacks Taylor Mitchell and Montgomery Van Gorder having combined to throw just one interception in 13 games.

Home field could be another big advantage for Cartersville, which has outscored opponents by an average of 24.3 in eight victories at Weinman Stadium this year.

But Simpson also points out that the Wolves have been pretty good road warriors over the years, particularly this season, as they've won five of six games away from Tom Riden Stadium -- with the one loss coming by forfeit -- including two straight playoff road games.

"Our kids always love playing on the road," Simpson said. "Buford travels (well with fans), and it's a big game. It's usually a great atmosphere, and that's what our players thrive on. It makes it fun."