LAWRENCEVILLE -- Following a first-round upset that took Cherokee to the second round of the state playoffs for only the sixth time in team history, the Warriors’ magic ran dry Friday night.
Archer beat Cherokee 45-14 behind a dominant second-half performance that saw the Tigers score 28 unanswered points and win convincingly.
Archer (9-3) finished with 545 yards of offense, with 401 coming on the ground, while Cherokee (8-4) was held to 71 total yards in the second half.
Emotions ran high for the Warriors’ coaches, players and fans following the game. Speaking to a huddled group of Cherokee faithful, coach Josh Shaw credited this year’s senior class with changing the program's trajectory.
“This group was just special,” a teary eyed Shaw said after the game. “You know, they never won many games in the junior program, and then going through an 0-10 season two years ago, that entire group made the decision to turn things around. The wins and losses come and go, but to see how these guys grew as young men is special.”
The game itself seemed up for grabs after the first few minutes.
Cherokee took the opening possession of the game and picked up first downs on its first four plays. Following an incomplete pass, A.J. Swann found Landon Ergle on an inside screen pass which resulted in a 18-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Slowing down Archer’s offense didn’t come as easy. The Tigers responded immediately with a scoring drive of their own, with quarterback Carter Peevy running in from 2 yards out and tying the game 7-7.
Cherokee held Archer to a field goal on its following possession and the score was 10-7 at the end of the first quarter.
A blocked punt, followed by a scoop-and-score by Jackson McCrary, gave Archer momentum in the second quarter and a 17-7 lead.
The Tigers were driving again and looked to possibly put the game away before Shaw called a timeout late in the second quarter. The Cherokee defense responded and stopped Archer on the next three downs, forcing a long field goal which was missed.
“We just have to learn to make plays in games like this,” Shaw said. “I don’t think that we’re used to playing in games like this, and that’s why I’m going to up the ante schedule-wise next year. But these guys were a couple plays away tonight, and you look at the teams that are left in the playoffs, it’s the best programs in the state, and to be right there with them, that’s uncharted territory for our program.”
Cherokee’s offense backed up its defense by taking the ensuing possession and running a near-perfect 2-minute drill, culminating with Swann’s second touchdown pass of the night, this one to Devin Ellison, to cut the Warriors' deficit to 17-14 at the half and
Swann finished 23-for-40 passing for 223 yards with two touchdowns. Ellison finished with a game-high nine receptions for 89 yards and the score.
Archer’s physicality took over in the second half as its up-tempo run game took its toll on Cherokee. Four different players scored touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters, and the Warriors had trouble slowing down Peevy on the option keeper.
When they did contain Peevy, Archer’s stable of running backs sliced their way through the Warriors’ defense. Five players had at least 50 rushing yards, led by Schmari Campbell's 109 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
Archer’s rush defense was equally as impressive, holding Cherokee to 65 yards on 21 attempts.
“We were really beat-up physically,” Shaw said. “It’s a grind, and we had some guys that we were trying to glue together. We knew we were going to have to try to outscore them.”
After the game, the Cherokee seniors lined the goal line and, one by one, were given hugs of appreciation from coaches and fans, with Shaw leading the procession.
“I’m just really proud of them,” Shaw said. “It’s been a tremendous ride with a lot of ups and downs. I don’t think we beat Roswell if we don’t lose to Etowah, and I don’t know if we beat Westlake if we don’t lose to Walton.
“Those are things that no one will ever be able to take away. At the end of the day, those guys are going to get a sign that says 'Sweet 16' and for us to just make it through the first round, it really gave us all a lot of memorable experiences.”