Cartersville's defense has faced some high-powered offenses this season, but the Canes had always found a way to make enough stops to emerge victorious.
However, they couldn't get the defensive stand they needed in the second half of a battle between the top two ranked teams in Class 4A Friday at Weinman Stadium. Top-ranked Cartersville allowed points on every drive by No. 2 Woodward Academy after halftime, as the War Eagles rallied from a 14-point deficit to earn a 31-28 win.
The victory sends Woodward (13-0) into the state semifinals, where the War Eagles will host two-time defending champion Blessed Trinity for a spot in the title game. Meanwhile, Cartersville (12-1) suffers a heartbreaking postseason defeat for the third consecutive year.
"I love them, I know it hurts right now," Canes head coach Conor Foster said of his postgame message to his players. "I'm proud of them, proud of the way they carried themselves and proud of the way they competed tonight. It didn't go our way. They fought with a lot of energy and effort. Just very proud of them."
In a meeting between the only unbeaten teams left in 4A, Cartersville looked to be in complete control through most of the first half.
The Canes used up more than five minutes of game clock on their opening possession, yet still managed to score on a long touchdown. Cartersville avoided a near disastrous start, thanks to quarterback Tee Webb's recovery of a fumble by Devonte Ross. The next play, Webb was hitting Ross for a stumbling 63-yard touchdown and a 7-0 advantage.
Quante Jennings had a 9-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter to push the Canes' lead to 14-0. After Kolbe Benham recovered a fumble by Woodward quarterback Mike Wright, Kyler Johnson looked to have given Cartersville a three-score edge. Instead, a holding penalty proved to be the game's first major momentum swing.
With the touchdown wiped away, Webb had a deep ball intercepted. The War Eagles capitalized, as Wright connected with Jacorrei Turner for a 53-yard touchdown with 3:29 left in the first half.
Woodward had a chance to possibly tie the game late in the second quarter. But a leaping interception by Cartersville junior Amarai Orr turned into a pick-6 and a 21-7 lead.
A missed field goal from 48 yards at the horn allowed the Canes to take the 14-point advantage into the halftime interval.
"We had a good first half but not a great game," Foster said, referring to his halftime speech. "The game wasn't over yet.
"I thought we battled in the second half. We had some breaks that didn't go our way. Their quarterback made some plays down the stretch, and we maybe missed an opportunity here or there. That's how it goes. Hats off to them."
On the War Eagles' first possession of the third quarter, Wright used his legs to convert a key third down. He later scrambled into the end zone on a short run, which pulled his team within 21-14.
The Canes needed less than 90 seconds to respond. Johnson hauled in a 38-yard pass from Webb, and the senior signal-caller later connected with Sam Phillips on a quick screen. The junior made a move to the outside before sprinting down the sideline untouched for a 35-yard score.
Woodward had a chance to answer right back, but Cartersville forced another field-goal try. James Mayfield knocked this one — a 26-yarder — through the uprights, dragging the War Eagles within 11 points at 28-17 with 3:20 left in the third period.
From that point forward, everything that played out likely brought back nightmares for purple-clad fans who also happen to support the University of Georgia and/or Atlanta Falcons football teams.
Cartersville punted on its next two possessions, bookending another Woodward touchdown drive. On second-and-goal from the 13-yard line, Mike Wright found Taco Wright for a score. The War Eagles, curiously, elected not to go for the 2-point conversion, apparently satisfied to be within four points.
Following the second of those two Canes punts, Woodward took over at its own 38-yard line with 4:39 remaining. Mike Wright picked up one third down with his feet and later connected with Taco Wright on a huge fourth down to keep the series alive.
Facing a fourth-and-12 with 1:23 left, Mike Wright hit Turner, who had to come back to the ball, as Marquail Coaxum brought him down. Despite appearing to be well shy of the line to gain, the War Eagles were given the first down, and they took advantage of the gift. On the next snap, Wright connected with D.A. Allen for a 13-yard touchdown, handing Woodward its first lead of the night.
Cartersville had 61 seconds to attempt to either tie win the game or send it to overtime. The Canes reached midfield with 39 seconds left, and Webb hooked up with Ross for a 10-yard gain. But a huge sack derailed the drive, and Webb's fourth-down pass was broken up with three seconds to go.
"We're just trying to keep it alive, trying to be smart," Foster said of the last possession. "We work two-minute situations all the time. I thought we did an OK job on offense. We just got unlucky there with the sack.
"To their credit, they made some big plays down the stretch."
Foster declined to say if there was a certain yard line he would have felt comfortable sending out junior kick Oscar Hernandez, who drilled his four point-after tries.
"We weren't there," Foster said, "so it really doesn't matter."
After winning back-to-back state titles in 2015 and 2016, Cartersville has now come up short in the playoffs the past three years, having fallen to Blessed Trinity each of the previous two seasons.
Foster, who ended his first year as a head coach with a 12-1 record, still expressed appreciation for what his senior group meant to the program. The players, which were freshmen during the 2016 state championship season, end their careers with a 52-3 record.
"Thankful for the legacy that they've left on our program, thankful for their leadership in the community, in the classroom and on the football," Foster said. "Just a great group of young men who have led our program for four years."