And then, there were two.
Peach County and Cedar Grove advanced in convincing fashion Friday night and will play Tuesday, Dec. 11 at 1 p.m. at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for the Class AAA high school football championship. The games were moved to Tuesday because of the success of Atlanta United in the MLS Playoffs and the scheduling conflict with the MLS Cup Final scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 8 at 8 p.m.
This will be the first meeting between the two programs.
No. 2 Cedar Grove seemed dead set on a championship berth with its 30-6 victory against upset-minded Pierce County. Cedar Grove took the lead over Pierce on a 70-yard run by Robert "Pop" Jones on the first play from scrimmage. Rashod Dubinion's 70-yard touchdown return off a free kick following a safety gave Cedar Grove a two-possession lead. Pierce answered with a 4-yard run by quarterback Jermaine Brewton to cut into the lead, but Cedar Grove's Kendall Boney created a bigger cushion on a 29-yard pass to Rashad Jordan. Another Jones touchdown run of 87 yards put away the game. Jones finished with 200-plus rushing yards.
"You just have to tip your cap to them," Pierce County head coach Jason Strickland told S. Thomas Coleman, who covered the game for the AJC. "You can talk about their speed and athleticism all you want. But I'll tell you what, [Smith and his staff] coach the heck out of that team. When you have athletes like that and you add great coaching like they have, you get a team that is just a very tough out."
Jones finished with 259 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. Cedar Grove finished with 310 rushing yards on 29 attempts. Rashad Cheney finished with nine tackles, one sack and three tackles for a loss. Alvin Williams had 10 tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss. Isaiah Ratcliff's 12 tackles and one tackle for a loss led the team. Jadon Haselwood, the nation's No. 1 receiver, was double-teamed all night, which opened up the Saints' running game.
Across the bracket, another well-coached team awaits Cedar Grove.
Fourth-ranked Peach County enacted its revenge, if you will, on a top-ranked Calhoun team that, just short of a year ago, held the Trojans to six points in the title game to deny Peach its first championship 2009. This year, Peach County traveled to Calhoun and utilized blistering speed and stifling defense to hold Calhoun to seven points, its lowest total since the 58-6 loss on the road against Cartersville and Trevor Lawrence last season. Peach County's defensive effort led to the worst home loss for Calhoun since Sept. 2, 2016 (Cartersville 56-0).
Peach County caused trouble for Calhoun throughout the night which, coupled with an injury to Calhoun's power back Zach Fuller early in the game, forced Calhoun to adjust.
The Trojans' defense sacked Gavin Gray five times in the first half for losses of 4, 6, 6, 10 and 14 yards as it took a 13-7 lead at the break. The defensive effort allowed the Trojans to hold Calhoun to minus-25 rushing yards in the first half while running only 22 offensive plays.
The Trojans' defense blocked a Calhoun punt and recovered inside the Yellow Jackets' 6-yard line to set up an easy touchdown to start the scoring. Jamir Best made the play on the punt and recovered the ball to set up a touchdown run by quarterback Jaydon Gibson with 5:17 left in the first quarter. Calhoun answered following a Gavin Gray pass to Brannon Spector, which set up a first-and-goal at the Peach 5-yard line. The Peach defense forced Calhoun into a fourth-and-goal situation. Calhoun, as it did several times on the night, drew Peach County off-sides, moving Calhoun a few inches closer to the end zone. Gray scored on a quarterback-keeper to tie the game at 7.
Taking advantage of another Calhoun miscue -- a mishandled snap on a punting attempt -- Peach County took a 13-7 lead on a 31-yard pass from Gibson to Justin Harris with 3:51 left in the first half. Calhoun's defense blocked the ensuing extra-point attempt. With 1:30 left before the half, Peach County forced a crucial turnover to keep Calhoun from scoring, after a long run by Spector. Gray missed an open receiver on the right edge of the field before Peach's Quentel Jones recovered a fumble on the next play.
Peach County extended the lead on a 31-yard field goal by Rene Galan with eight seconds left in the third quarter to take a 16-7 lead. The field goal was set up on a run by Gibson after he avoided tackles behind the line of scrimmage and turned it into a gain. Then Peach got an insurance touchdown on an interception return by Harris with 18 seconds left in the game.
Cedar Grove's Jimmy Smith and Peach County's Chad Campbell are in familiar territory; each have won a single state championship. Cedar Grove defeated Greater Atlanta Christian for the 2016 title, Cedar Grove's first. Campbell coached Peach County to a championship in 2009 against Gainesville, a year before Deshaun Watson's arrival to the Gainesville program. The Trojans won titles in 2006-05 under Rance Gillespie before Campbell's in 2009.
Coming Wednesday: A statistical breakdown for each program.
Coming Sunday: A preview of the state title game.
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com