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North Oconee's Eli Warrington is brought down by a Fayette defender but not before making a crucial catch. [Photo by Justin Hubbard]

There is only one Class AAAA football team that entered last week’s action with a lower seed that is still left standing.

That team is North Oconee.

The No. 3 seed Titans traveled to 2-seed Fayette County and won a nail-biter 41-35. They were the only team in all of Class AAAA to score a first-round upset.

“It was a big win,” said Titans senior quarterback Bubba Chandler. “We played super sloppy but, in the playoffs, it's survive-and-advance. It doesn't matter if you beat them by 100 or beat them by 1 point. It's all we're looking for is a win. We knew it was going to be a little hostile but we like playing in those situations.”

Fayette’s stadium was hostile as Chandler mentioned, just not in the typical manner.

Due to a shortage of officials, all first-round Class AAAA games were moved from last Friday to Saturday. The Titans and Tigers squared off at 2 p.m., much different than the usual 7:30 p.m. kickoff time on Friday nights.

Fayette’s band was a regular presence throughout the game, as was its lively PA announcer.

The Tigers team itself was pretty strong, too, particularly thanks to running back Shaquille Ancrum.

But the Titans were prepared for a difficult challenge.

That’s because they loaded the early portion of their regular season schedule with games against Oconee County, Ola, Cambridge and Benedictine. North Oconee lost all of those games.

“We played a tough schedule at the beginning of the year and it paid off [Saturday],” North Oconee coach Tyler Aurandt said. “Our kids never panicked. They didn't flinch, they didn't blink an eye. They just kept competing. We found a way to win it. That's why you play the tough ball games at the beginning of the schedule.”

Saturday’s game was rife with highlight plays.

Rodrick Finch got the Titans on the board with a short touchdown run less than two minutes in. Jack Butler notched a pick-six on the Tigers’ ensuing possession.

Fayette scored its first touchdown with 3:51 in the opening quarter. Chandler hit Eli Warrington for a 55-yard touchdown pass with 10:33 left in the second.

North Oconee recovered a fumble on a later drive before surrendering a touchdown with 49 ticks left in the first half.

Things really got wild after halftime.

A pass by Chandler that ricocheted off a receiver’s hands wound up in the arms of a defender, which set up Fayette’s third touchdown and made it a 22-22 game.

Dominic Elder gave North Oconee the lead again with a touchdown run at the 4:59 mark of the third. Fayette tied it again, though, with a 65-yard pass on the first play of the next drive.

Then, Khalil Barnes scored on a touchdown run to put the Titans up 35-28 two minutes before the fourth quarter began.

With 8:55 left in the game, Fayette tied the game at 35 thanks to a 70-yard touchdown run.

Finally, with 3:23 to play, offensive lineman Ashton Trenton Hefner fell on the ball in the end zone after a Titans ball carrier fumbled it. The touchdown gave North Oconee a 41-35 lead.

The defense forced a stop on the next drive and the Titans escaped Fayetteville with the first-round victory.

“We preached that all week, that we're gonna have to be tough and we're gonna have to play with relentless effort because they've got a great running attack,” Aurandt said. “We knew it was going to be tough. I'm just so proud of our kids for starting the game fast, then we kind of went through a lull, then they found a way to get gritty at the end and pull one out there for us.”

Hefner’s game-winning fumble recovery might have been the offensive line’s signature moment of the day, but Chandler said the group deserves credit for the offense’s success.

“I may have gotten sacked once and it was a coverage sack so it was well-played by [Fayette],” Chandler said about the protection provided by the offensive line. “We probably had, like, 300 yards rushing and the offensive line paved the way for that. That's all you can ask for.”

Another tough road game awaits North Oconee this Friday.

The Titans are back on a normal schedule and will play at Cedartown. The Bulldogs enter the game 7-2 and champions of Region 7-AAAA. They got a first-round bye after first-round opponent Arabia Mountain forfeited because it came into contact with a player on another team that tested positive for COVID-19.

“I know they've got some good backs and we're gonna have to fix some things in the run game,” Aurandt said of Cedartown. “Our kids are gonna have to be able to fit up the run really well. They're super talented, but when you get in the playoffs, anything can happen. I like our kids and I like the way they compete, so I'm excited about the opportunity to go over there and play a top-ranked team in the state.”

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