LINCOLNTON, Ga. -- After being battered all night, Lincoln County's defense made four huge plays in the fourth quarter to spark a rally and 47-39 victory over Eagles Landing Christian Academy in the second round of the Class A playoffs on Friday night.
The Red Devils (11-1) trailed 39-26 in the fourth quarter, but the defense came up with two interceptions, one fumble recovery and a stop on fourth-and-inches to spark a comeback with 21 unanswered points.
"Surviving," was Lincoln County coach Larry Campbell's assessment. "That's pretty much the story of our season. In my time here, that is probably the best football game I've ever been associated with."
That's saying something from the winningest coach in Georgia history. The Red Devils had to survive one of the brightest young rushing weapons in the state in Eagles Landing Christian freshman Keonte Green. The kid who just turned 15 two weeks ago rushed for 289 yards including touchdown runs of 65, 78 and 42 in his first four carries to lead the Chargers to a quick lead that seemed too much for Lincoln County to overcome.
"People laughed at me this week when I compared him to Herschel Walker and Garrison Hearst," said Campbell of Green's form in relation to the two Georgia greats.
Along with senior tailback Darien Hudson, the Charger duo had combined for more than 2,800 yards and 40 touchdowns coming into the second-round showdown.
"With (Green and Hudson) in the backfield, I knew we were going to have to score some points," Campbell said. "I didn't know if we could score 47. I think since I've been here that the most points that's ever been scored here."
While the score reflects a shootout with ELCA winning the yardage battle 408-329, the outcome turned on three defensive plays that kept the Red Devils postseason alive. Lincoln County will face Savannah Christian on Friday, the site to be determined by a coin toss
Leading 39-26 and controlling the ball with more than 350 yards on the ground to that point, Eagles Landing coach Jonathan Gess made a curious call for a deep pass on third-and-9. Aaron Spratlin's lob up the left sideline fell into the waiting arms of Desmond Kilpatrick, who returned it 63 yards to the Chargers' 9. On the next play, Craig Jones scored to cut the deficit to 39-33 with 8:26 remaining.
Eagles Landing again moved the ball across midfield, where Gess elected to go for it on fourth-down and less than a yard. The shotgun snap to Green was high, but the freshman batted it in the air and nearly made it to the corner on the Lincoln County sideline but failed to get past the original line of scrimmage.
"That was huge," Campbell said. "I can't believe they went for it, but I guess they way they were moving the ball they thought they could get a yard."
Re-energized by the turn of events, Lincoln County scored three plays later when Garrett Mohr hit Mason Saggus open in the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown and its first lead since early in the first quarter.
Still with 3:18 left, Eagles Landing's Green remained a threat. But he lost the handle on a shotgun snap and Keestan Wynn recovered the fumble for the Red Devils at the Charger 20. Two plays later Ercell Daniel scored his second touchdown on a 13-yard run.
Eagles Landing's last hope ended with another Kilpatrick interception deep.
"That's just what we do," said Kilpatrick of the defensive confidence despite the more than 400 total yards put up against them. "I never think we're going to lose. That's just Lincoln County football."
The loss left Eagles Landing players in tears, including Green.
"It is tough because I thought we were going to go to the state championship," Green said.
The Red Devils were forced to play against their strengths in an offensive shootout, something Lincoln County has been ill-equipped for since star tailback A.G. Middlebrooks was lost in midseason to a broken leg. Coming off a shutout of Trion in the first round, it was a startling awakening for a Red Devils defense that yields fewer than 10 points per game.
This was hardly the same team the Red Devils have faced in two previous playoff games in the previous three years. Twice before Eagles Landing Christian has rolled into Lincolnton for Class A playoff games, failing to score in both losses.
But these Chargers average 46 points per game in its nine-game winning streak. The team from McDonough, Ga., used those previous lessons in Lincolnton as a measuring stick for the program, improving from a 38-0 bludgeoning in 2006 to just 7-0 in the second round last year.
Those two games were cited by the Chargers coach in the preseason as proof that his program was moving in the right direction.
"We showed that we can play with anybody and I think we believe that now," Gess told the Georgia High School Football Daily in the summer.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
LINCOLN COUNTY 47, EAGLE'S LANDING CHR. 39
PLAY OF THE GAME: Desmond Kilpatrick returned an interception 63 yards to the 9 to spark a 21-point fourth quarter rally.
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Eagles Landing Christian freshman back Keonte Green ran for 289 yards including touchdowns of 65, 78 and 42 yards in his first four carries.
WHY LINCOLN COUNTY WON: The much-maligned Red Devils offense made enough big plays to stay close enough to back the defense up with a late surge.
WHY EAGLES LANDING CHRISTIAN LOST: After dominating all night, the Chargers turned the ball over three times and failed on fourth-and-1 in the final 8:26.
NEXT: Lincoln County (11-1) plays Savannah Christian on Friday, site TBD by coin toss.