The Darlington Tigers’ defense was up to its limit of Mt. Pisgah senior quarterback Coleman Smith.
Down by seven with 70 seconds to play in the fourth quarter, Georgia’s passing leader vied to tie the game and send it to overtime. On fourth down, Smith heaved a desperate pass to the end zone, but Darlington’s Thomas Speed was waiting on the other end.
Speed’s interception assured the Darlington Tigers through to the Sweet 16 with a 28-21 road playoff victory over the Mt. Pisgah Christian Patriots Friday in Johns Creek.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these kids,” Tigers head coach Tommy Atha said. “They fight so hard. There’s tons of fight in this bunch right here. This is a very rewarding win, no doubt.”
Darlington never trailed at any point in the game, jumping on the Patriots early with touchdown runs from Patrick Shelley and Harrison Allen before 12 minutes had expired. Allen would finish with 27 rushes for 171 yards and one TD.
“He’s a warrior,” Atha said. “The kid takes every snap essentially on offense and defense and he’s running just as hard in the fourth quarter as he is in the first quarter and that’s a testament to his work in the weight room, his conditioning.”
Mt. Pisgah’s Smith was 1-for-5 passing with 12 yards and an interception.
It appeared Darlington was about to run away with it, but after a three-and-out stop by Mt. Pisgah’s defense in early in the second quarter, Smith and co. finally solved the Tiger defense with the senior quarterback punching it in for his first of three rushing touchdowns.
At halftime, Darlington led 14-7.
The Tigers began the second half much like they did the first, as Shelley called his own number again and dove across the goal line for a touchdown and the 14-point edge was back.
Mt. Pisgah would counter with another Smith rush to the end zone from 3 yards out, and with a PAT, it was 21-14 late in the third.
The back-and-forth affair continued as Darlington’s offense marched down the field, capped off a 7-yard touchdown pass from Shelley to Speed with 10:16 to play in the fourth.
Shelley finished the day 8-for-11 for exactly 100 yards with one touchdown and one throwing interception. On defense, he also caught one of Smith’s three INTs.
“Nothing rattles him,” Atha said on his junior quarterback. “He is as even-keeled as any kid I’ve ever coached. On both sides of the ball, he just steps up and makes plays every week.”
The Patriots returned the favor with a 1-yard touchdown rush a mere 81 seconds later and the score stood at 28-21.
“There’s a lot of fight in that team down there,” Atha said. “They never gave up and they’re very good at what they do.”
After trading interceptions, Mt. Pisgah forced a Darlington punt and began driving down the field late in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots’ offense made it all the way to the Tiger 20-yard line, but after a sack on third down, Smith had to put the ball in the air, but the final pass of his senior career will go down as an interception.
After throwing for just 36 yards on 5-of-14 passing, Smith’s valiant resurgence in the second half saw him finish the evening 16-for-37 for 223 yards. However, his three interceptions proved costly.
“What makes it so difficult about (Smith) is if you don’t bring pressure, he’s going to find open guys. When you bring pressure, he’s got the ability to shake tackles and make plays on the run,” Atha said. “He’s just a great player.”
Atha had high praise for how his secondary handled Smith and the Mt. Pisgah offense.
“I think secondary-wise, we played the best game we’ve played all year against a team that throws the football,” Atha said. “We were able to make him move and make throws under duress.”
The Tigers will now prepare for a second-round duel with 5-star University of Georgia quarterback commit Brock Vandagriff and the Prince Avenue Christian Wolverines. Prince Avenue defeat Hebron Christian 63-28 in its first-round contest.
“We know we’ve got a huge challenge,” Atha said. “They’ve got tons of players over there. They’re very good defensively as well. We’re just excited to be moving on.”
Kickoff time is yet to be determined, but will likely be next Friday, Dec. 4, at 7:30 p.m. in Athens.