For the second time in the playoffs, North Oconee’s football team flashed a dynamic offense and a strong defense last Friday.
The Titans hosted Spalding High School in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs. They rolled to victory, topping the visiting Jaguars 37-0.
The victory marked North Oconee’s third shutout of the season. It was also the Titans’ eighth victory in a row after starting the season 1-3.
“To get to this point after having to overcome a slow start and that adversity, that's what we talk about all the time is ‘How are you gonna overcome adversity?’” Titans head coach Tyler Aurandt said. “That's our mission statement. To see those kids do it with the mentality and the mindset that they've done it with over the last nine weeks, it just speaks volumes to the character of the kids we have in our program.”
North Oconee got the scoring started early.
Louden Schnake connected with Khalil Barnes on a 52-yard touchdown throw just 35 seconds into the game. A missed PAT cost North Oconee a point but the Titans were ahead 6-0.
That score held until J.J. Poole converted a 21-yard field goal to improve North Oconee’s lead to 9-0 with 8:36 left in the second quarter.
A few minutes later, Jack Fabris caught a touchdown pass. Fabris worked past a defensive back toward the back of the end zone. He out-jumped the defender, snagged the ball in mid-air and hauled it in for the score.
Fabris, who characterized himself as a defense-first player, said he read his quarterback’s eyes like a defensive back would do.
As for the catch, Fabris said it surprised him that he was in that position to begin with.
“I'm usually lined up for winged-t and getting ready for some blocking but I was like, ‘Oh, I think a special play is coming’ and there it was,” Fabris said. “I caught it. It was all glory to God because I was kind of surprised myself right there.”
North Oconee’s final score before halftime came on a 30-yard catch by Barnes with 1:53 to go in the second quarter. That improved the lead to 23-0.
The scoring strike to Barnes gave the Titans three first-half passing touchdowns. The team had been mostly run-oriented the last few games but found early success through the air.
Aurandt said that was because the offensive coaches knew what to expect from Spalding’s defense and made the necessary adjustments to open up the passing game.
“They were trying to get an extra hat in the box to stop the run and it gave us some opportunities to hit a couple of things down the field. That's where you saw Jack Fabris' catch,” Aurandt said. “We were able to take advantage of some open spaces behind that.”
Barnes praised the work of Schnake and Max Wilson, who split the snaps at quarterback last week, for their quality work last Friday.
“They read defenses real well,” Barnes said. “I've got a really good connection with them. I worked with them this summer so many times and all that's paying off and I'm glad for it. And the o-line gave them a lot of time. That's a big thing, always.”
Schnake overheard the praise given to him and Wilson by Barnes. But Schnake said it took effort by the entire crew to find passing success last week.
“That line and the receivers, the coaching staff calling the plays – it all fits,” Schnake said. “It all works together.”
After halftime, North Oconee’s running game settled into a groove.
Rodrick Finch scored on an 11-yard run with 4:26 left in the third quarter. That made it a 30-0 game.
Dominic Elder Jr. capped off a lengthy drive in the fourth quarter with a 1-yard scoring run with 8:47 to play. That drive featured only runs and chewed up several minutes and put the eventual final score on the board.
“We had a big lead and we just wanted to give them the knockout blow,” Barnes said. “When we had that drive where we didn't have to put the ball in the air one time to score and it took a lot of the clock, that's just demoralizing.”
North Oconee’s defense was just as dominant as the offense, shutting out Spalding for the first time this season.
The Jaguars totaled only 55 yards passing and 43 yards rushing.
Much like with the offensive game plan, Aurandt said the defensive coaching staff saw things on film that helped the Titans earn the shutout.
“We knew we needed to stop the running back and that was a big deal,” Aurandt said. “Once we were able to kind of get him contained, it allowed us to do some different things defensively. Then, you get them in long-yardage situations and we felt pretty strongly that they were going to throw the ball in those situations and it gave us an opportunity to get in some different looks that we haven't shown.”
The victory advanced North Oconee to the quarterfinals for only the second time in program history. It is the Titans’ first Elite Eight appearance since 2014.
This Friday, they will travel nearly five hours south and take on Bainbridge. The Bearcats are 9-3 on the season and have not lost since Sept. 17.
In order to earn the road victory, Schnake said the team must stay consistent with its work the last several weeks. Aurandt said that rest will be a priority, too, given the long road trip ahead.
North Oconee surprised lots of people this year by upsetting Jefferson to win Region 8-AAAA and set up a long playoff run, but Barnes said the Titans were not surprised – nor are they satisfied yet.
“We believed it from the jump that we could be a special group,” Barnes said. “It's really surprising to everybody else but we saw it. We're not finished. We're still hungry, ready to go back to work.”