Marietta rallied to overcome a sluggish start and beat Harrison 31-27 in the regular-season finales for both teams Friday at Cobleigh Stadium.
Needing to win to make the playoffs, Marietta (8-2, 6-2 Region 4AAAAAA) battled back from a 14-0 deficit, scoring touchdowns off a fumble recovery, punt return and interception return, to stake a 21-14 halftime lead.
The Blue Devils then kept Harrison (5-5, 4-4) at bay in the second half, and the defense secured the victory by forcing Hoyas quarterback Lorenzo Nunez into an incompletion on fourth-and-14 with 52 seconds remaining in the game.
Marietta locked up its third straight postseason appearance, earning the region’s No. 4 seed, and will travel south for a rematch with Region 2AAAAAA champion Lovejoy, the same team that ended the Blue Devils’ season in the second round of last year’s playoffs.
“These guys know it’s about remembering November,” Marietta coach Scott Burton said. “This senior class has been with me for four years and they didn’t want their season to end. They led us (Friday).”
Harrison saw its season come to close after losing its third consecutive game, though it dominated the line of scrimmage over the first 14 minutes.
Nunez scampered for a 46-yard touchdown on the Hoyas’ first possession to cap a six-play, 80-yard drive and stake a 7-0 lead. Harrison then drove 50 yards on its ensuing possession, but Onterrio Lay forced a fumble that was recovered by Marietta.
But three plays later, Seth Simmer intercepted Brenton Martin, giving the ball back to Harrison in Marietta territory. Jonathan Fisher eventually ran in from 12 yards out to put the Hoyas in front 14-0 with 10 minutes left in the half.
“It felt like Harrison beat us in every phase of the game,” Burton said. “Fortunately, we have some dangerous kids who took advantage of some freaky plays, and we got a lead we may not have deserved.”
Marietta’s three second-quarter touchdowns came in the final 5½ minutes of the period.
Martin fumbled the snap on first down at the Harrison 45, but the ball kept bouncing backward as players tried to gain possession. Marietta’s KirVonte’ Benson eventually scooped it up and darted 63 yards for a score to get the Blue Devils on the board.
Harrison coach Matt Dickmann felt Benson shouldn’t have been allowed to score.
“He was down on that fumble return,” the Hoyas’ first-year coach said. “I don’t think our kids got a fair shake (Friday).”
As Harrison punted on its next drive, Benson let the ball bounce once in front of him before gaining possession for the return. The delay gave him just enough time to run around the left side of the coverage for a 68-yard touchdown that tied the game at 14-all.
T.J. Bulock’s 60-yard interception return capped the scoring run with 14 seconds remaining until halftime.
“I’m glad I was able to make some plays to help the team,” said Benson, who rushed 22 times for 164 yards. “It’s an amazing victory, and I’m glad the team was able to execute the game plan the coaches laid out for us.”
Marietta added to its lead in the third quarter after Ian Shannon connected on a 30-yard field goal.
Harrison responded behind Fisher’s 5-yard touchdown, but Marietta answered again as Martin found Marcus Bennett down the sideline for a 45-yard touchdown that gave the Blue Devils a 31-21 advantage 8 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Harrison chewed almost 6 minutes off the clock during a 14-play, 80-yard drive, capped by Jonathan Grimes’ short touchdown, and trailed by four after a high snap forced holder Andrew Brock to throw an incompletion on the point-after attempt.
Marietta tried unsuccessfully to run out the final 6 minutes and was forced to punt, but the Blue Devils’ defense stood strong to secure the win.
Nunez led Harrison, rushing 19 times for 166 yards and a touchdown and completing seven passes for 74 yards.