South Gwinnett's Malik Brown
ALPHARETTA — Turnovers and special teams miscues undid South Gwinnett in the first round of the Class AAAAAA football playoffs against Alpharetta.
The Comets trailed by just seven points at the half, but turned the ball over three times in the second half, botched a punt attempt at its own 10-yard line and gave the Raiders the ball back on a critical roughing the punter penalty as South fell 41-23 to end its season.
South (5-6) scored early in the second half on a 70-yard touchdown pass from Malik Brown to Fred Langston, but a missed extra point gave the moment right back to Alpharetta as it maintained a 17-16 lead. From that point forward the Raiders (9-2) scored 23 straight points en route to the first playoff win in school history.
“That’s a momentum breaker,” South head coach John Small said of the missed PAT. “People don’t realize that, but one point’s huge. When you do get the momentum on your side that’s kind of a back breaker there, but that’s still not why we lost the ball game.
“We had some other opportunities that we didn’t take advantage of and that’s the way it goes.”
South held Alpharetta to just 76 yards of total offense in the first half, but after the turnovers in the second half Raiders’ quarterback Austin King was able to take advantage of the South miscues.
King connected with James Marbaugh for an eight-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter and then hit Daniel Clements for a 43-yard touchdown and a 34-16 lead with six minutes left in the game.
King, who also hit Rustin Suter for a 49-yard TD with 3:11 left in the first quarter, finished the game 12 of 29 for 216 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
Alpharetta’s defense was the difference in the game as the Raiders collected five turnovers, recorded eight sacks and DeAndre Watkins returned a blocked punt 15 yards for a touchdown.
Senior linebacker Bryce Grauss led the way, blocking the punt as well as recording fumble recovery and returning an interception 82 yards to set up a 1-yard TD run by Miles Smith.
Brown finished the game 17 of 30 for 237 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The senior also picked up seven first downs with his legs.
Sophomore Josh Shim also saw action and finished the game 6 of 12 for 62 yards and two interceptions.
South’s lone first-half touchdown came on a 99-yard kickoff return by Langston to make it 17-10 with 2:25 left in the half.
“Our kids have got a lot of guts and they showed a lot of character this year by battling back,” Small said. “Starting off the season 1-4 and getting themselves back in the playoffs, they grew up a whole lot. Things didn’t go our way tonight, but we had a lot of opportunities that we didn’t capitalize on and they did when we turned the ball over. That’s how it goes in the playoffs, you’ve got to protect the football and we didn’t do that tonight.”
Small also addressed the rumors that Friday may have been his final game as the South head coach by saying he has no plans to leave the Comets.
“Not a chance,” he said. “I’m at South Gwinnett, I love South Gwinnett. I don’t know where that came from, that’s the craziest thing I’ve heard.”
SOUTH GWINNETT 3 7 6 7 - 23
ALPHARETTA 7 14 3 21 - 41
South: Roberto Lindsay 27 FG, 5:48
Alpharetta: Rustin Suter 49 pass from Austin King (Thomas Waller kick), 3:11
Alpharetta: DeAndre Watkins 15 blocked punt return (Waller kick), 9:55
Alpharetta: Waller 25 FG, 2:39
South: Fred Langston 99 kickoff return (Lindsay kick), 2:25
South: Langston 70 pass from Malik Brown (Linsday kick failed), 11:19
Alpharetta: Waller 34 FG, 8:31
Alpharetta: James Marbaugh 8 pass from King (Waller kick), 10:11
Alpharetta: Daniel Clements 43 pass from King (Waller kick), 6:00
Alpharetta: Miles Smith 1 run (Waller kick), 4:03
South: Trevon Vallery 11 run (Lindsay kick), 0:46