The Blue Devils had different plans. They had very different plans.
Marietta used a strong performance from senior quarterback Anthony Jennings to stun the Vikings 30-27 in the first round of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs Friday night at Martin Stadium.
The third-seeded Blue Devils (8-3) got the most out of their four-hour road trip and advanced for a second-round game next week at Lovejoy.
“It feels great,” Marietta coach Scott Burton said. “We had a large contingent of Marietta fans that made the trip down to Valdosta, and it was definitely a great feeling to be able to send them back home with a celebration of a big win.”
It was the first time Lowndes (9-2) lost a home playoff game in the first round under coach Randy McPherson, who was previously 17-1 in home playoff games since taking over the program in 2002.
“It is tough,” McPherson said. “You can’t take anything away from (Marietta). Their quarterback was the difference in the ballgame.”
Jennings, the difference-maker McPherson alluded to, threw for three touchdowns and broke loose for an 88-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter to lead the Blue Devils to the historic win over the Vikings.
The long touchdown run by Jennings put a stop to the surging Vikings early in the fourth quarter and re-extended the Blue Devils’ lead to 10 points, 30-20, with 8:33 remaining in the game. On the scoring play, the LSU commitment broke through the entire Lowndes defensive line, managing to keep his feet and then outrun the entire defensive backfield.
“It hurt,” McPherson said of the run by Jennings. “He was everything they said he was.”
Despite going back down by 10 points, the Vikings didn’t go away. On the following possession, Nick Burgman scored on a 41-yard run that brought the Vikings back within three, 30-27.
Then, following a Blue Devil punt, the Vikings had their first opportunity to take the lead since early in the first quarter, but wasted the chance with a fumble by Tiquan Lang at midfield.
Looking to run out the clock, Marietta managed to run three plays and take the clock down to the 1-minute mark. After a timeout, Jennings was stuffed at the line on fourth-and-1, turning possession of the ball back over to Lowndes.
But the Blue Devil defense was too much. Lowndes quarterback Alex Stephenson was sacked twice, while the Vikings allowed 30 seconds to run off the clock in between plays. Then, on the final play of the game, Stephenson dumped the ball off to Tevin Brown, who ran up the field towards but was tackled as time expired.
“The whole plan was to kind of take Lowndes out of what they are comfortable with,” Burton said. “They are a very physical run-oriented offense. Our strategy was to throw the kitchen sink at them when we were on offense and try to get ahead. Our defense was able to force a turnover early, and we were able to get ahead early. The game unfolded just as we had planned, with us getting out early and kind of getting them off their game plan, so to speak.”
Marietta scored on three of its first four offensive possessions to open the game. The Blue Devils connected on a 19-yard field goal on their first drive, which was set up by a 43-yard interception return by defender Tyrell Tomlin.
After Lowndes answered on its following possession with a 38-yard field goal by Gustavo Gonzales, the Blue Devils punted before using two of Jennings’ three TD passes to grab a 16-3 lead on Lowndes.
Jennings connected with Chavez Hemphill on a 91-yard touchdown pass, which came on a third-and-long play, to take a 9-3 lead. The Blue Devils failed to convert their 2-point conversion.
Then, following a quick Viking three-and-out that resulted in minus-9 yards, Jennings drove Marietta 45 yards down the field and connected with Tyree Harris on a 30-yard touchdown pass that made the score 16-3.
Lowndes added another Gonzales field goal at the end of the first half to make the score 16-6, before the second half started much like the first half ended — with Marietta celebrating a touchdown.
Starting at their own 22-yard line, the Blue Devils put together a nine-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that was capped off by Jennings’ third TD connection of the night. This time, he found Jordan Mathis on a 21-yard scoring connection that put Marietta ahead 23-6.
Following the score, the momentum started to swing, even if just for a few minutes, into Lowndes’ favor. Lang, playing in his first game since mid-October, returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, making the score 23-13.
A few possessions later, Lowndes continued its comeback with a 5-yard touchdown run by Ahman Brown, which made the score 23-20.
Marietta couldn’t answer on its next possession, punting the football back to Lowndes. On their next drive, the Vikings handed it off to Brown on a short third-and-1, but he was dragged down for a loss and Lowndes was forced to punt.
“Our defense played really, really, well,” Burton said. “They had what felt like 10 or 15 tackles for a loss. They basically put Lowndes in a place they didn’t want to be in all night long with second-and-long and third-and-long.”
Jennings regained the momentum for Marietta off the punt, breaking loose for his 88-yard TD run.
Jennings finished the night 9-of-19 passing for 195 yards with his three touchdowns. He also led the Blue Devils in rushing with 111 yards on 11 carries.
Jordan Williams led the Vikings with 65 yards rushing on 12 carries, while Ahman Brown tallied 50 yards rushing on 15 carries. Burgman added 46 yards on 13 rushing attempts.
Marietta Daily Journal sports writer Emily Horos contributed to this report.