As the final seconds on the clock became history, a single point separated the two teams that competed for the GHSA AAAAAA State Football Championship on Friday night.
Following a field goal kick by Langston Hughes that fell short with just 3 seconds left in play, the Buford Wolves brought home their third consecutive state title with a 21-20 victory at Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta.
The matchup opened with the Wolves receiving the ball first, but they were quickly forced to punt on fourth down. Not squandering their possession, the Panthers made a series of strong drives up the field. Following a face mask penalty against Buford, Langston Hughes capitalized on their momentum with a 33-yard touchdown pass at 5:09.
A good point after kick by Langston Hughes No. 43 Alan Gonzalez brought the score to 0-7.
Buford pushed back with a series of short passes and technical runs up the middle, but an interception by the Panthers’ No. 6 Rodney Shelley stopped the Wolves’ progress as the first quarter came to a close.
Langston Hughes opened the second quarter with another touchdown at 10:17, and a successful point after saw Buford go down 0-14. The rest of the quarter allowed each team’s defense to shine as possession changed numerous times.
The Wolves left it to the last seconds of the first half, but following an ambitious push and a potential touchdown pass dropped in the end zone, Buford No. 5 CJ Clinkscales ran the ball in for a touchdown with only 0:04 left on the clock. A good extra point by No. 99 Alejandro Mata kept Buford’s hope alive as they went to the locker room with a 7-14 scoreline.
In the second half, Buford fell into a rhythm of short runs and long passes down the middle, which helped them progress steadily down the field. Following an injury for Buford No. 65 Paul Mubenga, the Wolves were able to push No. 12 Ashton Daniels into the end zone from the 1-yard line, and Mata’s extra point finished off the equalizer they needed.
The Panthers refused to quit however, and they managed to run in another touchdown with 0:12 left in the third quarter. The critical opportunity for Buford came when Langston Hughes missed the extra point kick, leaving the score at 14-20.
As a tense fourth quarter wound down, the Wolves found their moment when Daniels threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to No. 4 Tobi Olawole at 2:55. Mata’s extra point then saw Buford take the lead for the first time in the game with a 21-20 scoreline.
The Panthers would not go down without a fight however, and although Buford’s defense held them to third down with 19 yards to go, a pass interference penalty gave Langston Hughes the chance to push further up the field.
The dramatic conclusion came with 0:03 on the clock and the Panthers in field goal range with just one point between the two teams. As Buford’s student section migrated behind the goal posts to cheer on their defense, Langston Hughes made its final attempt at victory, but the kick fell short, and the buzzer was drowned out by the roars of celebration on the Buford side.
“I hate that anybody had to lose this game. It was a heck of a game,” Buford head coach Bryant Appling said following the win. “They took us to the wire, they really did.”
With Buford’s win over Langston Hughes, Appling became the first football coach in GHSA history to win three consecutive state championships in his first three years as a head coach.
Appling expressed his gratitude for Buford’s fans.
“ … it’s about those fans up there in those stands supporting us all year long, and we appreciate you guys, and we love you guys,” he said. “Our student section is the best student section in the nation.”
FEATURED PHOTO: Buford’s Japhet Mubenga reacts after sacking Langston Hughes’ Air Noland during the GHSA AAAAAA State Championship game on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, at Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta. Photo by David McGregor