St. Pius X head coach Paul Standard may be known as a conservative football coach, but his Golden Lions wouldn’t have beaten Washington County 40-35 Friday night if he didn’t open it up a little in the state AAA quarterfinals.
SPX recovered its own onside kick to begin the game, the run-oriented Lions threw the ball better than they ran it on the way to a 27-21 halftime lead, and three huge fourth-down conversions carried the DeKalb County Catholic high school to the state semifinals for the fourth time. The Lions will play host to North Hall after winning a coin toss Saturday morning to determine the site.
The Lions were led by junior wingback Branden Mitchell’s 164 rushing yards and two receptions for 42 yards and a score.
It took everything that SPX (11-2) had to overcome Washington County’s 14-3 first-quarter lead, and WaCo running back Melvin Hill. He rushed 16 times for 218 yards and three touchdowns for the Golden Hawks (11-2). Each team had three turnovers.
Senior fullback Ryan Braswell entered the game with 1,359 yards and 25 touchdowns for SPX and he finished with three touchdowns Friday, but he was a decoy much of the first half when he rushed five times for 8 yards.
Junior Kevin O’Toole recovered the onside kick at the outset. That led to a 43-yard field goal by junior Thomas O’Leary, who closed the first half with a 44-yarder with seven seconds left.
In between his two game-clinching kicks was some wild football.
Washington County took a 14-3 lead just minutes after O’Leary’s first field goal.
Hill raced 54 yards around right end on the Hawks’ third play, and then after SPX lost the ball on a pitch by quarterback Jack Spear, Washington County needed just three plays before senior quarterback William Walker passed 6 yards to D.J. Sanders for another score.
Four plays after that, the Lions faced fourth-and-1 (or less) at their own 28-yard line. Standard called timeout. In week eight at Woodward Academy, Braswell was stuffed in an eerily similar situation, and the War Eagles went on to upset the Lions and temporarily knock SPX out of first place in Region 6-AAA.
Guess what? Braswell behind left guard for 2 yards.
“It was the same spot we were in against Woodward Academy, and that’s still the only time in I can’t remember how long we hadn’t got less than a yard,” Standard said. “If we can’t get a yard or less, then we’re not going to be very good.
“Now, if the score was tied or something would I have done that? Probably not. But it was 14-3, and they [Washington County] had the juices flowing. We had to keep the ball. We do that play I can’t tell you how many times every day in practice.”
Soon, it was Spear’s turn.
The Golden Lions went into the game having rushed for 3,764 yards and 49 touchdowns while passing for 621 and five scores.
Spear a few plays later found Mitchell wide open for a 22-yard touchdown.
Not long after junior linebacker Daniel Crochet intercepted Walker on the first play of the second quarter to set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Braswell, Hill countered with a 32-yard run for a score.
SPX came right back when Spear hit Ruffin on a crossing pattern for a 57-yard touchdown with 1:47 left in the first half. The Lions led 24-21.
Friday, Spear was 4-for-8 for 108 yards and two touchdowns in the first half while the Lions rushed for just 74 yards.
“Those pass plays are the same pass plays we work every single day in practice,” Standard said. “I know people don’t think we work the pass.”
Ruffin intercepted Walker moments later to set up O’Leary’s second field goal.
Each team scored on its first possession of the second half, which was sloppy as Washington County lost a fumble and SPX lost one in addition to an interception.
Also, the Hawks were trailing 34-28 in the fourth quarter when they reached four-and-goal at the SPX 7 only to have a snap sail over Walker’s head for a 19-yard loss and change of possession.
Mitchell went 73 yards on the next play before Braswell scored his third touchdown from 1 yard for a 40-28 lead.
The Hawks weren’t finished. Walker’s 8-yard TD pass to D.T. Latimer with 3:31 left in the game pulled the Hawks within 40-35. Walker completed 8-of-11 passes for 83 yards and rushed for 64 on 11 carries.
Crochet, however, recovered an onside kick. That was the third recovered by the Golden Lions – one of their own and two by Washington County.
SPX ran out the clock from there, the key coming on fourth-and-1 from the Washington County 40 with 1:33 when the Hawks jumped offsides. That was the third fourth down converted by the Lions in as many tries, and the Hawks were 3-for-5 on fourth downs.
The Lions rushed for 189 yards in the second half, when Hill intercepted Spear’s only pass attempt.
SPX out-gained Washington County 371-368 to return to the state semifinals for the first time since losing there to eventual state champion Northside-Warner Robins in 2006.
The Lions were also state runners-up in 1965, and won the state in ‘68.
Washington County — 14 7 7 7 – 35
St. Pius X – 10 17 7 6 – 40
SPX – Thomas O’Leary 43 field goal
WC – Melvin Hill 54 run (J.W. May kick)
WC – D.J. Sanders 6 pass from William Walker (May kick)
SPX – Branden Mitchell 22 pass from Jack Spear (O’Leary kick)
SPX – Ryan Braswell 3 run (O’Leary kick)
WC – Hill 32 run (May kick)
SPX – Nick Ruffin 57 pass from Spear (O’Leary kick)
SPX – O’Leary 44 FG
SPX – Braswell 3 run (O’Leary kick)
WC – Hill 32 run (May kick)
SPX – Braswell 1 run (run failed)
WC – D.T. Latimer 8 pass from Walker (May kick)