LOUISVILLE – Southeast Bulloch High School’s season of renewal ended Friday, as the Yellow Jackets fell to Jefferson County, 32-29, in the first round of the state playoffs.
And like the season that gave hope to all of Brooklet, a play with 20 seconds to go in the game looked like SEB might pull out a miracle victory. Forcing a Jefferson County punt, Tyler Epps had the ball slip through his hands. But after a Jefferson player tried to pick it up, it bounced off his hands and into the arms of Southeast’s Keegan Carter. Carter took it down the right sideline 70 yards for what appeared to be a touchdown that would have given SEB a 35-32 lead.
But it was not to be. Yellow Jackets coach Pat Collins said the officials ruled Epps muffed the punt, which is not returnable by either team, and an inadvertent whistle gave Jefferson possession, denying SEB a Hail Mary opportunity to perhaps set up a game-tying field goal.
After the game, Collins said he could not recall a more bizarre ending to a game he had coached.
“No, that’s about as strange as it gets,” he said.
Nonetheless, 2013 truly saw a turnaround for SEB, as the Yellow Jackets recorded their first winning season since 2005 and earned their first state playoff berth since 2003. SEB finishes with a 7-3-1 record, a third-place finish in Region 1-AAA and optimism about the program’s future moving forward.
“The resolve the kids showed tonight and all season – I could not be more proud,” Collins said. “We made some mistakes tonight to put ourselves in a hole, but we kept fighting.”
Epps, who came into Friday’s game as the state’s fifth leading rusher with 1,787 yards, carried the ball 30 times against Jefferson for a tough 106 yards, battering Warrior defenders in his way. The senior also scored three touchdowns in his final game as a Yellow Jacket, giving him 26 for the season.
Fellow senior Antonio McMillan ended his SEB career with a solid game, rushing for 128 yards on 20 carries – all on a gimpy ankle. He also scored on a 31-yard run.
Trailing 26-14, SEB’s defense forced four straight three-and-outs, and the Jackets finally capitalized with a 12-play, 55-yard drive capped off by an Epps 1-yard run to cut the deficit to 26-21 with 6:18 to play in the game.
But Jefferson answered with a 55-yard kickoff return by T.J. Clark, which set them up for a short 16-yard TD drive to extend the lead to 32-21.
Still, SEB would not give up, putting together a 56-yard drive ending with a 1-yard run by Epps. He added a two-point conversion to cut the lead to 32-29 with 1:53 to play.
Andrew Cribbs then executed a high bouncing onside kick that Jefferson was barely able to recover. That set the stage for the wild ending.
Despite outgaining Jefferson 295 yards to 223, recording 16 first downs to the Warriors’ nine and maintaining possession for 18 more minutes, an interception return for a touchdown at the end of the first half and a fumble return at the start of the second half ultimately proved too much for SEB to overcome.
On its final possession of the first half, SEB picked up two first downs, including converting a fourth-and-1, when disaster struck. After faking a handoff into the line, quarterback Cole Carter tried to slip a screen to Keegan Carter in the left flat. But Warrior defensive back Marquarious Patterson stepped in front and raced 60 yards down the sideline into the end zone with three seconds to play in the half. Keegan Carter blocked the extra point, but Jefferson took a 20-14 lead into the locker room.
On their first possession of the second half, SEB’s Cole Carter and McMillan mistimed a handoff and Jefferson’s Justin Smith scooped it up and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown.
The Yellow Jackets grabbed a 7-0 lead on their first drive, moving 55 yards in six plays. Epps scored on a 6-yard run, with McMillan setting up the TD on a 30-yard run to the Jefferson 6.
The Warriors answered right back, driving 63 yards in five plays keyed by a 49-yard pass from quarterback Tyrone Bell to Cartabious Quarterman. Quarterman finished the drive with a 3-yard run.
SEB took the lead right back when McMillan capped off a 59-yard drive with a 31-yard scoring run off the right side. Cribbs converted the extra point for a 14-7 lead with 4:41 to play in the first quarter.