For the Heard County Braves, their season lows and highs both came against the Rockmart Yellow Jackets, with the highest point being a 27-6 win to claim the Class AA state championship on Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The win for the Braves (13-2), ranked No. 3, was redemption for their 33-0 loss to second-ranked Rockmart (14-1) on Sept. 7 in which they quit at halftime, with lightning triggering game delays they chose not to wait out. That dropped them to 1-2 — their lowest point — which was part of a two-game skid in which they were outscored 66-3, including a 33-3 loss to Hapeville Charter.
They wouldn’t lose another game along the way, claiming Region 5-AA and the first state championship in a program history that dates back to 1972.
“It’s a blessing,” said senior running back Aaron Beasley, a Tennessee commit who had a game-high 147 rushing yards on 31 carries, including two touchdowns. “It started after the semifinals when we found out we were playing Rockmart again.”
The Braves never trailed and were in complete control the entire game, opening on a 27-0 run and nearly shutting out a Jackets team that came in averaging 45.8 points. The Jackets didn’t score until 3:53 remaining to bring the score to its final margin on a 21-yard touchdown pass by Dylan Bailey to Juke Boozer.
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Special teams and defense played a big role in the Braves’ receiving prime field position throughout the game. Three of their touchdowns came on 1-yard runs, the other on a 2-yard run. Alijah Huzzie and Beasley had two rushing scores apiece.
“We definitely felt like we were in control,” said senior quarterback Huzzie, who this season took over for the country’s top ‘18 dual-threat quarterback, Emory Jones, now at Florida. “We messed up a lot and it wasn’t our best game, but we did what we had to do.”
The Braves opened the scoring with 3:20 left in the first on Beasley’s 2-yard run, which was followed by a Huzzie-to-Lequincy Shepherd pass for the 2-point conversion. The drive started on the Rockmart 21 after the Jackets poorly fielded a punt and were called for a penalty to start their drive on their own 5. They would go three-and-out, with their punt going just 30 yards and being returned 14 by Shepherd.
With 7:09 before halftime, the Braves’ defense stuffed Markus Smith on fourth-and-goal from the 1, then used 10 plays to drive 98 yards in four minutes, scoring on Huzzie’s 1-yard run to take a 14-0 lead that would hold through halftime. On the drive, Beasley rushed six times for 62 yards.
Shepherd seemingly put the game out of reach with 10:21 remaining, when he intercepted a pass and returned it 52 yards to the Rockmart 1. Huzzie punched it in on the next play to give the Braves a 20-0 lead.
“I knew I had to get back because I got beat,” said Shepherd, who added a second interception on the game’s final play. “I was watching the receiver the whole way down and I just read his eyes, then turned around and intercepted the pass.”
Down three scores, the Jackets went into desperation mode and, four plays into the ensuing drive, found themselves facing fourth-and-12 on their own 10. They went for it and completed a pass for a 2-yard loss. Two plays later, Beasley rushed 1 yard for the Braves’ final score of the game, which came with 7:56 left.
“The defense played lights out,” said Braves coach Tim Barron, in his 17th season at Heard County. “The kids did a great job and the defensive staff did a wonderful job putting together a game plan, because we struggled against Rockmart the first time we played them.”
For the Jackets, it was their first trip to the title game since 1957. Though they came up short, they set the program record for wins, topping the 12-0 team from 1957 that won them their only state championship.
Rockmart broke through to the title game this year after finishing 9-3 in each of the last two seasons.
“We played a team that’s hot and came through the playoffs with a lot of fire,” fourth-year Jackets coach Biff Parson said. “Our guys didn’t play well and that’s the bottom line...but our kids have revitalized the community and have changed the culture at Rockmart. I know right now we’re disappointed, but when the smoke clears, they have a lot to be proud of.”
Huzzie finished 2-of-6 passing for 13 yards and an interception and rushed 10 times for 33 yards.
The Jackets were led by Boozer’s five receptions for 100 yards and a touchdown. Bailey was 9-of-20 passing for 114 yards and a touchdown to two interceptions and Zabrion Whatley led the team in rushing with 32 yards on 11 carries.
Heard County 8 0 6 13 - 27
Rockmart 0 0 0 6 - 6
H - Aaron Beasley 2 run (Shepherd pass from Alijah Huzzie)
H - Huzzie 1 run (run failed)
H - Huzzie 1 run (kick failed)
H - Beasley 1 run (Jakab Moon kick)
R - Juke Boozer 21 pass from Dylan Bailey (pass failed)