BUFORD, Ga. — If coach Terrance Banks could scratch the first half of the Newton Rams’ Friday night clash with state power Buford — or replay it — things might have turned out differently.
As it was, Newton fell 54-27 to the Class AAAAA No. 3 Buford Wolves in a game that was essentially a tale of two halves.
After spotting Buford the first 24 points of the game, the Rams came out in the second half looking more like a team that could routinely hang with one of the pound-for-pound best squads in Georgia, regardless of classification.
And that fact caused Banks to speak with the kind of enthusiasm in his voice that almost made you think he was talking about a win rather than a loss.
“We made a ton of mistakes, me all the way on down, in that first half,” Banks said. “But these boys came out here in the second half and scored 27 points. They fought. We cleaned stuff up. That’s the NewtonBoys way. Now, it’s incumbent upon me and my staff to get them to play that way for 48 minutes.
“But yes, I’m proud of them for not giving up. That’s the No. 32 ranked team in the nation over there, and we traded blows with them in the second half like a heavyweight fight. The problem is, you can’t wait until round six to be ready to start fighting.”
It was, indeed, a tough bout from the start for Newton, literally.
Quarterback LT Stowers, making his first start on the road, was sacked on the first play of the game thanks to Buford sending a cornerback blitz that took him down for a loss of six. Then, after a pair of offsides penalties and a pair of incomplete passes, the Rams would punt it away.
Buford’s first drive stalled after seven plays. But special teams became a factor when the Wolves blocked a Newton punt on its next drive. Buford then went on a methodical, all-rushing plays scoring march capped off by Elijah Turner’s three-yard touchdown run, giving Buford a 7-0 lead at the 1:29 mark of the first quarter.
Newton’s next drive would also stall out, making way for Buford quarterback Aaron McLaughlin to throw a perfect strike to Zaire Wilson for a 28-yard score.
Before the half, the Wolves added a 24-yard field goal and a 39-yard Darrien Brown touchdown run to provide a 24-0 halftime score. Newton narrowly averted disaster right before the second quarter expired, though, as Stowers fumbled after getting sacked, and the Buford defender scooped it and returned it to the Rams’ 3-yard line before stepping out of bounds.
It was a different story for the Rams in the second half, however. On their second possession, Stowers hooked up with Robert Lewis for a 63-yard pick-up. The big play set the stage for the Stowers to toss it to Jerrol Hines for a one-yard touchdown, pulling the Rams closer at 24-7 with 9:34 left in the third.
The Newton defense promptly forced a three-and-out, but Stowers gave the ball back when he threw a pick on the first play of the ensuing drive.
Buford turned that into points when Turner finished a 7-play, 73-yard drive with a 22-yard scamper, untouched, to the end zone to push the lead back to a 24-point advantage with just over five minutes left in the third.
The Rams would strike back with a pair of big plays, one on each side of the ball. First it was DeJuan Brown defending the wheel route perfectly and picking off a McLaughlin pass.
The turnover turned into points when Adarius Thomas went around the right end and took it 64 yards to the house.
The back-and-forth third quarter continued when Turner went 48 yards with the response touchdown from the wildcat formation, pushing the lead back to 24 points with 1:13 left in the third quarter.
Newton opened the fourth with another big Stowers-to-Lewis play, this time for a 77-yard touchdown to cut the lead back to 17.
Banks said he liked the growth in his quarterback who threw for close to 300 yards and accounted for three of the Rams’ four scores.
“I definitely saw some growth in him as the game went on,” Banks said. “He’s never been in this type of atmosphere before. Most of our boys haven’t. So there was some growth in that second half. I wish it would’ve happened sooner because you play to win the game, right?”
The Rams’ defense was unable to stop Buford’s ground game though, as Brown took a second down hand off and sliced straight through the heart of the Newton front seven for a 48-yard scamper that gave the Wolves a 45-21 lead less than a minute after Newton’s touchdown.
That, and the lack of special teams play was probably Newton’s biggest downfall. The Rams’ starting punter was out with injury which forced senior wideout Mike Mathison into punting duties.
Several of Mathison’s punts were very short, and one was blocked, giving Buford prime field position most of the night.
“If you saw him kick during practice, you wouldn’t have known that would happen, but it just didn’t translate tonight,” Banks said. “But that was the biggest thing. We couldn’t flip the field. We had injuries to some special teams guys that would normally be in there, which happens when you get to game four.
“But when we got to halftime, we were able to get our guys together, talk about the details and fix some things. I think it helped them understand that mistakes happen, but it’s your response to those mistakes that carries you.”
The Wolves would add a safety and another garbage time touchdown, while Stowers had a short scoring run with under 30 seconds remaining in the game to provide the final margin.
Next Friday Newton (3-2) will come back to Sharp to host Westlake in a 7:30 p.m. kickoff. And Banks maintains that it’s these kinds of games that will get his guys ready for the ones that matter most.
“People call it coach speak, but it’s truth,” he said. “You have to have these games, because you can’t sharpen iron unless you’re up against iron. We’ve gotta beat Grayson and Archer. Those are the games in our region that matters. These kind of games (against Buford) help us in that regard."