Commentary

Tucker flips the script in Georgia final

Updated: December 17, 2008, 4:02 PM ET
By Matt Winkeljohn | Special to ESPNRISE.com

ATLANTA -- Strange scene last Friday night in the Georgia Dome:

[+] EnlargeDevin Scott
Travis Hudgons Devin Scott and Tucker ran past Marist for the team's first AAAA title.

With the Class AAAA state championship game about 45 minutes away, Marist's head coach of 24 years, Alan Chadwick, paced anxiously. His 272 wins, two state titles and five runner-up finishes did nothing to calm him, and he wore out a rug under the stadium as assistants tossed a football and watched the AA state title game on an overhead TV.

His counterpart, a second-year head coach whose squad lost 38-0 to Marist on Sept. 26, had an up-close view of the AA game. Tucker boss Franklin Stephens was a sideline spectator as the first of five state title games spread over two days in the Dome wound down. Neither man was with his team.

Odd? Yes.

An omen? Maybe.

The weirdest part of the night? No way.

That would be the final score -- Tucker 15, Marist 3.

"I wouldn't say it was revenge," said Stephens, whose two-year mark became 27-2. "It was more a matter of redemption, and it was great for our entire community."

Redemption? Perhaps.

One could argue that Tucker was better last season, when the Tigers won their first 13 games by a combined 477-82, including seven shutouts.

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Next, in the state semifinals, Tucker led defending state champion Northside-Warner Robins 28-7 in the Dome. Then, all that breathtaking speed started hobbling to the sideline with cramps as dehydration hit the Tigers and their identity dried up.

Actually, Tucker is always difficult to identify.

It is in the middle of the Atlanta metro area's most densely populated county with loosely defined borders in an unincorporated area of DeKalb County east and northeast of Atlanta. It is not officially a city, a town or a village, but it's home now to a state champion and a tale.

When you take a man who'd been there and done that like Chadwick (272-45) and match him against another who had to take a road less traveled (Tucker previously played in one state title game, Marist nine), you have prospects for a script, a pigskin reversal of fortunes.

Eighteen Georgia state championship games have matched teams that met in the regular season. In 14 of the first 17, the same team won the second time.

More backstory might help build suspense for that script, so here you go:

Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi River, but the AAAA combatants knew each other well. They're both in DeKalb County, both in Region 6-AAAA, and 12 miles or so apart.

Marist (13-2) is a private Catholic school with an Under Armour equipment contract that costs the school nothing and provides bountiful equipment in exchange for exposure. Sports Illustrated in 2004 listed Marist's athletic program as 15th-best in the nation; after all, the War Eagles have won every state Directors Cup for all-around athletic excellence since the award was born in 1999.

[+] EnlargeTucker
Travis HudgonsTucker put on a show for Tiger fans who made the trip to the Georgia Dome.

Tucker (14-1) is one of 19 high schools in a county school system. It does not have its own stadium (DeKalb schools share five stadiums) and must rely on booster-club funds for things like temporary lights to practice this time of year. One of Tucker's MVPs is an assistant coach's wife who sews up battered uniforms.

The walls are crumbling around the Tigers as their school is being renovated, and they had never won a state title.

This was not exactly a case of the haves vs. the have-nots, as Tucker is stocked with athletes, a fantastic booster club and a fine football feeder program. But two schools so near each other are far apart in many ways.

"We stretch [the booster club budget] to the limit," Stephens said. "There are always certain things you'd like to have. I would love to have more coaches that are paid for by the county, and higher supplements for the coaches we have.

"I have seven full-time coaches [and a few more volunteers]. It's like a third-world country coming from [AAAAA state champion] Camden County [where Stephens was an assistant before taking the Tucker job]. I think we had 13 coaches."

None of this eased Chadwick's mind before the game, even if he has nine full-time coaches and a few volunteers.

Marist won its two previous playoff games 34-33, and then 19-17 in a state semifinal at Rome -- on the final play.

On the flip side, Tucker rolled through the playoffs by a combined 146-42, including a 31-20 win at No. 1 Westside-Macon and a 34-0 semifinal win over Griffin.

"The differences on [Tucker's] offense are the maturation of their quarterback [senior Chris Beck], and the return of [running back Devin] Scott, and the development of their O-line," Chadwick said the day before the game. "They're playing harder, better.

"Defensively, they've had two or three personnel changes and are more aggressive. We made the point to our players this is not the same Tucker team we played earlier."

Plus, "don't tell anybody this, but we're not sure our quarterback will be able to throw," Chadwick said Thursday. "Kyle Farmer hurt his shoulder. He hasn't thrown a pass this week."

Stephens' chief issue in the days before the game? "The one thing that was disappointing to me was I got an e-mail from a parent requesting more playing time for their child."

No word on whether Stephens meditates.

Farmer, who will play baseball at the University of Georgia, threw, but not well -- Tucker outgained the War Eagles 322-71.

The Tigers put together drives of 20, 13, nine, nine and 15 plays. Twice Tucker held the ball for more than eight minutes on a possession, and the only reason the game wasn't more lopsided was that Marist stopped Tucker twice in the red zone in the first half to force field goals by Ricky Peacock.

Senior quarterback Chris Beck passed for 97 yards and rushed for 40. He converted two fourth downs with runs, and on a game-clinching, eight-minute touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, he converted two third-and-longs with passes, and another on a scramble where he weaved and bobbed like Barry Sanders.

Not bad for a guy Stephens chewed out a couple of times on the sidelines in the first half.

"He didn't have such a great first half," the coach said. "All I can say about that kid is he is a winner. I thought he was a great athlete. In the spring, I thought I would make him a running back just because he was so athletic. But we had some issues at quarterback, and he came in and solidified that position for us."

Franklin Stephens
Travis HudgonsCoach Franklin Stephens might not have the resources of a school like Marist at his disposal, but he found a way to bring home a title.

Compared to Friday, Tucker was gelatinous months earlier.

A couple of reasons:

First, according to Stephens and defensive coordinator Brian Lamar, players have grown up, having had to cope with steep graduation losses off the '07 team.

And while Chadwick and the Marist staff began working up a game plan for Tucker a weekend earlier, Lamar started cramming for the War Eagles on Sept. 27.

"Every week, I worked on Marist since the last time we played," Lamar said. "I'd take five minutes, 10 minutes, think about stuff, keep working and working and working. We came up with a different scheme that was a lot sounder, a lot better for our kids."

Marist's wishbone option is a pain to stop: The War Eagles operate with a militaristic, jackhammer-like persistence.

When the teams first met, Lamar scrapped his standard 3-3-5 defense and moved up a defender to slow the run-based attack. It seemed like a good idea. In Chadwick's two title seasons ('89 and '03), the War Eagles tried five passes in one championship game and zero in the other.

Tucker jammed Marist's dive plays in September. But against Tucker's modified four down linemen, three linebackers and four in the secondary, Marist ran wild outside.

"I changed the perimeter fit. We played with four secondary guys the first time, and we came back and played with five." Lamar said. "We could move more on the perimeter. We played with four defensive linemen, but we kind of changed from three linebackers to two [and five defensive backs]. I kind of meshed the two [defenses]."

Plus, the Tigers weren't intimidated the second time around.

When the teams met in September, senior linebacker Jonathan Davis and senior lineman Tevin Holliman were the only defenders who had ever played significant minutes against Marist.

"That defense [last year] had six or seven three-year starters, kids who had played against Marist their whole life. They knew what to expect," Lamar said. "Then, this year we had two kids who had ever played against Marist, in a heated rivalry.

"We beat them 30-0 last year, they've been thinking about it all year, and we come back with two kids who actually know what that fire is like. Some of the scheme was not perfect, but you cannot prepare for a game like that, a rivalry game at their place after beating them 30-0 … and you have an inexperienced team with injuries."

By Sept. 26, the Tigers had lost senior defensive lineman Deion Roberson (6-feet-2, 275 pounds) to a season-ending ankle injury. By Friday's title game, Holliman (6-3, 235) was lost to a knee injury. Both are considering Georgia, Auburn, Georgia Tech and Alabama, among other schools.

Two potential Division I defenders gone, and Tucker still held Marist without a first down from the War Eagles' first possession until the final 90 seconds of the third quarter. "We tackled a lot better. We were much more intense," Davis said.

Well, yeah, there was that. Plus, it looked like Tucker knew what was coming.

"We had some kids defensively step up," coach Stephens said. "James Vaughters, a young kid [sophomore] came in for us; Nicholas Potts [who tackled Farmer for a second-quarter safety] is another; Robert Sullivan, all those guys rose up on the defensive line.

"In the secondary, Marcus Williams, A.J. Bouye, Temeni Brewster and guys like that got experience. That's what you saw, a bunch of kids who grew up and had a party."

Tucker running back Drayton Calhoun has committed to LSU, but that doesn't mean Alabama coach Nick Saban, Duke's David Cutcliffe and others at the Dome weren't scouting him.

They almost certainly were looking over Tucker linebacker Davis and others. Davis was all over the field on defense and pitched in 68 rushing yards, the game-clinching touchdown with 2:47 left, and 51 receiving yards.

Scott led Tucker with 75 rushing yards, and Calhoun added 47 on a night when the Tigers' offense wore down Marist by holding the ball for more than 35 of 48 minutes.

"There wasn't too much that was different about the game plan; we just went out and did it better," Beck said. "Jonathan is definitely the emotional leader of our team."

Davis, who said he is considering South Carolina, UAB and Central Florida, was the spark plug in Tucker's engine all season on both sides of the ball and pumps up his teammates with seemingly endless energy.

Like the Tigers, he may be underestimated -- he's only 5-feet-8 -- but he's 200 pounds of muscle and firebrand and has a neck as wide as his head. And like Georgia's AAAA title game, what you saw ahead of time might not have foreshadowed what you would get.

"I don't know if you can wear him out," Stephens said of Davis. "He's going to play until he can't play any more. I tell people all the time he's like a dog you take to the edge of the woods, and he's going to bring you something back; he's going to find some game. That dog will bring some game back. He will hunt on the field all day long."

Matt Winkeljohn recently left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.