It took Grayson 12 seasons of varsity football to get to its first championship game. It took less than a half to win it.
Grayson (15-0) took a 24-point lead in the second quarter, held Walton to minus-19 yards in the first half and won 24-0 in the Class AAAAA final Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
It was the first shutout in a championship of Georgia’s highest classification since Lowndes beat Brunswick 17-0 in 1999. The shutout was preserved when Grayson stopped a fourth-and-2 at the Grayson 6 with 2:16 left.
Grayson took command early after a couple of long passes by Nick Schuessler, a punt return by Ryan Carter and a defense that held the state’s leading rusher, Tyren Jones, to 78 yards on 16 carries. Jones had a 52-yard run in the final minutes when the outcome was not in doubt.
On Walton’s first possession, defensive back David Kamara forced a fumble after a short pass, and linebacker Jay Strickland recovered at the Walton 42. Grayson scored on 10 running plays – eight by 270-pound Robert Nkemdiche – and led 7-0.
“When we got that turnover, we got Robert going downhill, and that gave our kids a little confidence,’’ Grayson coach Mickey Conn said. “We were a little nervous coming into this thing for obvious reasons. The turnover kind of got everyone to feel at ease.’’
Better known as a patient running team, Grayson broke the game open on the arm of Schuessler, who threw two touchdown passes to Callen Hightower.
Facing a third-and-18 late in the first quarter, Schuessler (3-of-3 passing, 108 yards) hit Corey Schaeffer on a 42-yard post pattern to set up a field goal. Then with 9:28 left in the half, Schuessler hit Hightower on another post for a 45-yard touchdown that made it 17-0.
“We knew we could beat them with the run, but as soon as their safeties started creeping in, the coach made a good call and we beat them over the top,’’ Schuessler said.
At that point, Gayson led in total yards 163 to 1.
Then Grayson showed off its special teams when Carter went 67 yards on a punt return to the Walton 11. On the next play, Schuessler hit Hightower for a touchdown pass for a 24-0 lead.
Schuessler entered the game with efficient statistics – 93-of-154 passing for 1,506 yards and 17 touchdowns with three interceptions – but in a run-dominated offense that doesn’t allow the quarterback to shine that often.
‘’Nick is so underrated that these people don’t have a clue,’’ Conn said. “A quarterback is a leader. He’s someone who wins. He took us to the semifinals last year and the final this year. It’s unbelievable what he means to us.’’
The game featured Walton’s strong offense line and the running of Jones against Grayson’s top-rated defense. Jones had 2,299 yards entering the game, but Grayson held Walton to negative rushing yardage until Jones’ 52-yarder in the final minutes put Walton deep in Grayson territory for the only time in the game.
Jones had changed from jersey No. 1 to No. 20 on that possession because his original had been torn. His yardage initially was credited to Jacob Murphy, a sophomore defensive back.
Nkemdiche, the top-rated junior defensive tackle in the country according to most recruiting services, outgained Walton and Jones with his 85 yards on 19 carries. Walton finished with 58 yards on the ground.
Nkemdiche thought Grayson had held Jones to less than 50.
‘’We were waiting for him to play a defense like ours,’’ Nkemdiche said. “I’m pretty sure he didn’t get over 50 yards rushing. We average like 36 [allowed] a game. Our defense played great.’’
Grayson, which opened in 2000, became the eighth team from Gwinnett County to win the highest classification since 1996. Cobb County was denied its first state champion since 1967.
Grayson 10-14-0-0 – 24
Walton 0-0-0-0 – 0
G – Robert Nkemdiche 3 run (KallenRhodes kick)
G – Rhodes 34 FG
G – Callen Hightower 45 pass from Nick Schuessler (Rhodes kick)
G – Hightower 11 pass from Schuessler (Rhodes kick)