For the first time in almost two full years, North Oconee High School football fans got to cheer on the Titans at home in the playoffs last week.
North Oconee, which holds a No. 1 seed in the Class AAAA state playoffs, hosted Miller Grove last Friday in the first round of the postseason. The Titans won big, topping the Wolverines 56-21.
That game marked North Oconee’s first home playoff game since Nov. 15, 2019.
“Anytime you get to play at home, it's special,” Titans head coach Tyler Aurandt said. “I think the kids understand how much it means to be able to play at home and to be in a routine and not have to go out on the road. It's a big deal.”
The Titans got on a roll early against Miller Grove.
They scored twice in the first quarter and three times in the second quarter. They were up 35-0 before Miller Grove finally crossed the goal line with 2:44 left in the first half.
North Oconee’s players entered the game knowing they wanted to make a statement early.
“It was real big,” said running back Dominic Elder Jr. “Offensively, when we start off hot, it’s hard for us to be stopped.”
Elder got the scoring started with a 1-yard touchdown run at the 8:40 mark of the first quarter. Fellow running back Rodrick Finch made it a 14-0 game with a 16-yard scoring run with 1:11 left in the period.
With 10:29 left in the second quarter, Khalil Barnes scored from 13 yards out on a run that saw him break a tackle and juke a couple of other defenders along the way.
Titans quarterback Louden Schnake made it a 28-0 game on a touchdown run with 4:45 to play in the half.
Schnake later tossed a 35-yard touchdown pass to Brooks Thompson, making it 35-0 with 3:05 left in the second.
Miller Grove scored on a 74-yard run before the half but North Oconee answered quickly in the third quarter.
Elder scored with 9:22 left in the quarter, giving him two touchdowns.
On its ensuing possession, one of Miller Grove’s players coughed up the ball and Ryland Laturell was there to scoop it off the turf. Laturell ran to the end zone, recording a 20-yard scoop-and-score. That improved North Oconee’s lead to 49-7.
Elder notched his third and final touchdown of the night with 3:10 left in the third quarter, making it a 56-7 game.
Miller Grove tacked on touchdowns with 2:05 left in the third and 9:54 left in the fourth quarter, which featured a running clock due to the point differential.
Barnes said the Titans entered the game wanting to win in the exact fashion they did.
“The coaches preached all week, ‘Good teams take care of business,’” Barnes said. “They said we can do really special things when we don't care about who gets the praise and who gets the glory. We just played as a team and played together.”
Schnake said the team’s confidence increased even more with the early lead.
“It was huge,” Schnake said. “I know our defense is gonna do what they've got to do because they've been doing it all year. Getting a big lead up front puts the other team down. They don't really know what to do coming out of halftime after we're up big.”
North Oconee’s defense got off the field at a regular clip but Miller Grove’s running game had moments of success.
Two of its touchdowns were running plays – the first went for 74 yards and the second went for 77 – and the Wolverines finished with 225 yards rushing as a team.
Barnes said those big plays must be eliminated but he was confident the Titans could clean up those elements moving forward.
“All of those were just little missed assignments,” Barnes said. “We've got to keep fixing the little things. When we fix them, we can be unstoppable.”
Despite any slip-ups, the defense smothered the Wolverines and allowed the offense to put the game away.
Schnake went 4-for-7 through the air with 62 yards passing. He had one touchdown and one interception. Schnake ran it twice for 26 yards and a touchdown.
Elder ran it 20 times for 135 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Barnes finished with 52 yards rushing and one touchdown on five carries. Finch notched four carries for 31 yards rushing and a touchdown.
Aurandt said the offensive coaching staff went into the contest hoping to disrupt the Wolverines’ plan of attack and open up lanes for running game.
“[Miller Grove has] a lot of people in the box,” Aurandt said. “They bring a lot of different pressures and we felt like if we could get through the first level that we'd have a chance to spring some for 10- and 15-yard gains. Our guys up front did an unbelievable job.”
The Titans are back at home this Friday.
They will host Spalding County, which handed Troup County a 10-3 defeat during the first round of the playoffs.
Aurandt noted that Spalding nearly finished with a better spot on the playoff bracket and said the Titans must be prepared for a challenge.
“They should be a 1-seed – they tied for a 1-seed then drew the short straw and ended up the 3,” Aurandt said about Spalding. “They've got a really explosive offense and they're really fast on defense. ... They can give you some problems and we're gonna have to be ready to go. They're gonna be as good as anybody that we've played to this point.”