ALPHARETTA, Ga. – The Alpharetta Raiders scored the first playoff victory in the school’s history, defeating the South Gwinnett Comets 41-23 last Friday night, Nov. 15.
The win advances the Raiders to the second round of the state AAAAAA playoffs at home this Friday night against state-ranked Collins Hill, one of three teams to tie for first in Region 7, considered the state’s strongest in AAAAAA.
The Raiders (9-2) came away with a decisive victory against the Comets, but some of the game statistics did not exactly give the impression that Alpharetta led by 25 points before a late South Gwinnett touchdown.
Offensively, the Raiders had minus 31 yards rushing, completed just 12 of 30 passes and gained a total of only 184 yards with a modest 11 first downs.
Defensively, the Raiders yielded more than 300 yards passing, with the Comets running 83 plays from scrimmage to 49 for Alpharetta.
Alpharetta also gave up a touchdown on a kickoff return, but the Raiders did more than enough in other aspects of the kicking game to offset the one breakdown.
The Raiders won thanks to some standout defensive work by linebacker Bryce Grauss, end Andrew Butcher and cornerback DeAndre Watkins, with Grauss and Watkins also figuring in the success of Alpharetta’s special teams.
The Raiders sputtered offensively for much of the night, but hit enough big plays through the air to offset a non-existent running game and some inconsistency in the team’s explosive passing attack.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Alpharetta coach Jason Dukes told his team after the game. “This wasn’t easy. Not only are we region champions, we get another week.”
South Gwinnett, the No. 4 seed out of Region 8 with a 5-5 record, controlled the game through one quarter, but trailed 14-3 two minutes into the second period thanks to two plays.
After the Comets fumbled near midfield, the first of their five turnovers, Austin King found Rustin Suter behind the South Gwinnett secondary for 49 yards and a touchdown to put the Raiders ahead 7-3 with 3:11 to play in the opening period.
The Raiders made it 14-3 when Grauss, who came up with the earlier fumble recovery, blocked a punt and Watkins scooped it up in the stride at the Comets’ 15 and took it in for a touchdown.
Three plays later, Watkins intercepted a pass and returned it to the South Gwinnett 14, but King was picked off in the end zone.
At that point, the Raiders had minus 5 yards offense other than the touchdown pass. But they put together their only extended drive of the game, moving 40 yards in 12 plays to score on a 35-yard field goal by Thomas Waller. Along the way, Alpharetta converted its only third down of the game, as well as a fourth-and-9 from the South Gwinnett 43.
The Comets’ Fred Langston returned the kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown and pulled his team within 17-16 when he hauled in a 70-yard touchdown pass on the second play of the third quarter. But South Gwinnett missed the PAT, one of a series of mistakes by the Comets in their kicking game that the Raiders capitalized on.
A roughing-the-punter penalty on fourth-and-25 extended Alpharetta’s next series, with King hitting James Marbaugh twice for 29 yards to set up a 34-yard field goal by Waller.
The Comets were driving to a possible go-ahead score when Butcher’s second sack on the drive forced a fumble, with the Raiders recovering at the South Gwinnett 19.
A 42-yard catch by Suter (three receptions, 100 yards) gave the Raiders a scoring opportunity, but they stalled at the Comets’ 23. No matter. A high punt snap by South Gwinnett gave the ball to Alpharetta at the Comets’ 10. King hit Marbaugh, who made a juggling catch for 8 yards and the score to make it 27-16 early in the final period.
A second interception by Watkins gave the Alpharetta offense the ball on the Comets’ 43, and King connected with a wide open Daniel Clements for the touchdown on the next play.
The final Alpharetta score also came after an interception, with Grauss making the pick at the Raiders’ 12 and taking it the length of the field before a horse collar tackle 1 yard shy of the end zone denied him the touchdown.
Miles Smith scored on the next play to make it 41-16 before the Comets drove to a touchdown inside the final minute.
Grauss, playing with a damaged kneecap that forced him out of the game at one point, had 13 solo tackles, three for losses, and five assists in a determined performance. Butcher was credited with two-and-a-half sacks and was a constant presence on pass plays, with the Comets getting most of their yards though the air on quick tosses to the outside.
King wound up with 215 yards passing and three touchdowns, but missed some open receivers, completing just 40 percent of his attempts.
“Offensively, we made some big plays when we needed to in the second half,” Dukes said.
After the Comets got back in the game on Langston’s two long touchdowns, Dukes credited his defense “with making up for that mistake and forcing some turnovers