OCILLA - The countdown began with a minute left Friday. Sixty seconds to Atlanta. Twenty seconds to Atlanta. Players squirted the contents of their water bottles in the air. Then the bottles went airborne.
Irwin County made it to the Class A public state finals. Irwin County had slain its dragon.
Irwin defeated Clinch County 36-0 in the state semifinals, running their record to 12-0. And it was against Clinch, whose Panthers had won three state titles from Irwin after losing all three times in the regular season.
"They've had our number for a while. It's pretty nice to be on the other end of the second game one time," said Casey Soliday, Irwin County's defensive coordinator who has taken more of the reins this year with head coach Buddy Nobles battling cancer.
Nobles was in attendance Friday in his custom-built stand on the sidelines. He also addressed players and fans on the field after the game.
Friday's game was scoreless for a half.
Clinch missed field goals of 51 and 35 yards in the second quarter, the latter coming with 67 seconds remaining in the period. The 18 yard line, where they bogged after a six-minute drive, was as close as they came.
It was a different Irwin that began the second half of play. The Indians took the ball on the kickoff and marched steadily down the field exclusively on runs.
The Indians shook off a holding penalty and a botched snap that was recovered by Toby Brown. The ball went to D.J. Lundy nine times on the 14-play drive, but it was Kam Ward who electrified the crowd with a 25-yard run to Clinch's 2.
Lundy was stopped twice there, losing a yard on the second attempt, but burst through from the 3 at 4:59. Evan Ross kicked the extra point. Now Irwin had a reason to believe.
Clinch quarterback Tyler Morehead went to the air three plays after Irwin went ahead. It ended disastrously as Gabriel Benyard snatched the ball out of the air, darted around teammates and avoided going out of bounds on the runback.
That "ridiculous interception," was a one-handed grab. Soliday called it "the deal-breaker."
Two minutes after taking an initial lead, Irwin was up 14-0 and the Panthers were now in deep trouble.
Clinch's desperation to get anything going resulted in a deeper hole. On fourth-and-three at their own 20, the Panthers faked the punt and snapped it to an upback. He was tackled a yard short of the first down marker.
After being knocked back five yards on a false start, Benyard swept left for 23 yards. Lundy carried it the final four. The extra point kick missed, but it didn't matter. Irwin had scored three touchdowns in 4:30. The countdown was on.
Ross booted a 26-yard field goal at 8:17 in the fourth to go up 23-0. Irwin had gotten a short field to start the drive courtesy of an intentional grounding penalty called on Morehead that spotted the ball on the 10. Clinch's ensuing punt traveled 30 yards.
Morehead and his Panthers were still battling as time continued to tick. He sidearmed a pass that landed in the arms of Jordan Payne, then was forced to knock Payne out of bounds at the 21. Jamorri Colson and Ward ran 10 yards each before Ward carried it over the goal line at 3:29.
Neither Irwin nor Payne were done. Taking advantage of an increasing number of Indians subs, Morehead and Xavier Trawick took turns running it to Irwin's 35. Then came a fumble and Payne scooped it up and ran 65 yards untouched for the final score.
Clinch held the ball for most of the first half. The drives that ended in field goal attempts were their most successful. The first attempt came after a possession that lasted 5:16. Morehead tried one pass on the drive, but Benyard tipped it away at the goal line. Zack Robbins was short on the 51-yard try.
Short gains punctuated the final Clinch drive of the half. Morehead had one run of 10 yards, but short gashes paved most of the way. However, the kick went wide right and Irwin stayed out of danger.
Neither quarterback completed a pass. Morehead was 0-for-4. Irwin's Zach Smith couldn't connect on either of his attempts.
Benyard and Colson were Irwin's biggest ground-gainers. Benyard had an unofficial 64 yards on six carries, Colson toted 10 times for 62 yards. Lundy was 15-43 on the ground with Ward adding 44 on six runs.
Morehead was more than half of Clinch's 173 total yards. He ran 18 times for 90 yards. Michael Walker was next best at 33 yards on 11 carries.
"They're a great football team," said Soliday. "To hold them scoreless for eight quarters (Irwin beat Clinch 14-0 in the regular season) is a big credit to our defensive players. Our kids played extremely hard."
Soliday gave additional kudos to the offensive line, the running backs and Irwin's offensive coaches. They "made an effort to pound [Clinch] on the inside and made a huge difference in the game."
Irwin will play Marion County in the state finals. Marion won 42-25 over Pelham Friday in Buena Vista. This match-up will take place at 10 a.m. at Georgia State in Atlanta next Saturday.