Staff Photo: John Bohn Greater Atlanta Christian School head coach Tim Hardy addresses his football team after a 42-14 loss to Jefferson in a semi final state playoff game Friday.
JEFFERSON -- Like a sprinter trying to keep up with a world record holder, Greater Atlanta Christian was able to keep up with Jefferson in its Class AA state semifinal football game -- at least, for a while.
But as hard as the No. 10 state-ranked Spartans worked, the fourth-ranked Dragons and quarterback Bryant Shirreffs had an extra gear.
The senior ran for 128 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 141 yards and two scores as Jefferson used a big second-quarter surge, plus a grinding third-quarter drive to coast to the line for a 42-14 win Friday night at Memorial Stadium.
The win ends GAC's season at 10-4 and sends Jefferson (13-1) to the Georgia Dome for a date with top-ranked Calhoun for its first state championship game appearance since 1977, and sends coach T. McFerrin to the title game for the fourth time in his storied 40-year career.
"We just didn't execute," GAC coach Tim Hardy said. "They made more plays than we did. That's why they won the ball game. Our kids played hard. We're proud of that. We really hurt ourselves with a turnovers ... and some penalties that got us way off schedule."
GAC was still on schedule despite being stopped for a three-and-out on the game's first possession.
The two offenses traded touchdowns with regularity during the first quarter, with each team striking once on the ground and through the air.
The Spartans matched Shirreff's 10-yard scoring strike to Chandler Thompson and Sammy Williams' 2-yard run with a 15-yard run by Kyle Scales and a 79-yard TD bomb from Rafe Chapple to Peter Whiteneck, leaving the teams tied 14-14 after the opening 12 minutes.
But it was in the second quarter that the Spartans began to lose ground.
And after forcing a Jefferson punt, it looked like GAC might gain the upper hand, especially when a 40-yard completion from Chapple to Chris Williams set the Spartans up at the Jefferson 30-yard line.
But two plays later, a bad center exchange put the ball on the ground, and Tradd Porter pounced on the loose ball to give Jefferson the ball back on its own 28.
And the Dragons quickly cashed in, needing just four plays to go the distance, with Shirreffs keeping the ball on an option play and weaving his way through the GAC defense for a 53-yard touchdown that put Jefferson in front 21-14 with 8:06 left in the first half.
From there, the Dragons' defense began to stiffen, forcing the Spartans to punt on their next two possessions.
And the offense helped Jefferson pad its lead late in the half, driving 63 yards in six plays before Isaiah Blake took a pass from Shirreffs in the right flat and knifed through the GAC secondary for a 20-yard TD with 3:15 left in the half.
The extra point was missed, but Austin Mixon's interception deep in Jefferson territory and 37-yard return on the last play of the half send the Dragons into intermission with a 27-14 lead.
"The second quarter was a really difficult time for us, offensively," Hardy said. "That put us behind the eight ball. ... We were driving to move ahead in the second quarter, and we turned the ball over. And we had a couple possessions in our own territory, and we had some self-inflicted penalties that got us off schedule."
If those struggles in the middle quarter didn't seal GAC's fate, Jefferson's opening possession of the second half did.
The Dragons marched 74 yards in 16 plays to eat up most of the third-quarter clock.
Still, it looked like GAC might minimize the damage by forcing Jefferson into a 33-yard field goal attempt that Shaq Alexander pulled well wide left.
But the Spartans were flagged for encroachment just before the ball was snapped, giving Jefferson a first down at the GAC 13.
And it took the Dragons just to plays to take advantage, with Shirreffs running in from 7 yards out to increase the Jefferson lead to 35-14 after Shirreffs hit Donnie Hatfield for the two-point conversion.
In all, the play drained 8:41 off the clock, allowing the Dragons to make it a three-possession game and leaving the Spartans just over three minutes left in the third quarter before they even got their hands on the ball for the first time in the second half.
"We wanted to run the clock," McFerrin said. "I said, 'Let's don't get greedy. ... That touchdown was huge. That got us up by three scores. That was huge."
GAC had two more chances to get back into the game, with Scales -- who finished the night with 107 yards and a TD -- running three times for 41 yards before leaving the game with a knee injury to help set the Spartans up with a first and goal at the Jefferson 1.
But the Spartans just couldn't find their way into the end zone as the Dragons stuffed three running plays and hauled down Micah Abernathy on a completion at the 3 on fourth down to end the drive on downs less than a minute into the fourth quarter.
"What did we stop them, three times? And then the goal-line stand," McFerrin said. "That may have won the game for us."
If it didn't seal the win for Jefferson, another stand by the defense after GAC forced a punt and go the ball back in Dragons territory.
This time, the Spartans drove as deep as the Jefferson 16, only to be turned away again when Tay Stevens sacked Chapple for a 4-yard loss on fourth down with 9:59 remaining.