Westover RB Dalviness Greene, left, escapes the tackle of a Jonesboro defender Friday night during their state playoff opener. (joe.bellacomoalbanyherald.com)
ALBANY – Westover wasn’t going to let it happen again.
The Patriots avoided another second-half collapse that cost them in the regular season against Jonesboro and used a punishing ground attack to knock off the GHSA Class AAAA No. 7 Cardinals, 26-21, in a rematch in the first round of the state playoffs Friday night at Hugh Mills Stadium.
Recently returned Patriots running back Shannon Saunders ran for 208 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries to lead Westover to a win in the first state playoff game the Pats have ever hosted. Westover led, 12-8, against Jonesboro at halftime in the first meeting this year at Hugh Mills Stadium, but it allowed 26 unanswered second-half points en route to a 34-12 loss.
The Patriots took that same 12-8 lead into the half again Friday, but this time they were able to limit the big plays by Jonesboro senior star receiver Cameron Sutton. Sutton torched Westover in the second half in the first meeting, but he was limited to 98 yards receiving without a touchdown in the rematch.
“Déjà vu,” Westover head coach Octavia Jones said of seeing another 12-8 lead going into half. “The difference this time was we were able to slow (Sutton) down. He still made some plays, but he didn’t take over the game like he did last time.”
Westover moves on to the second round next Friday and will host Region 3-AAAA No. 4 seed South Effingham after it upset Region 2-AAAA No. 1 seed Westside, Macon, 43-33, on Friday in the first round.
Saunders ran roughshod over Jonesboro, which allowed 350 yards on the ground to the Patriots.
“We knew Shannon was that type of player,” Jones said. “Teams had success running the ball against (Jonesboro) all year and we knew we could do that.”
Herald Dynamite Dozen selection Dalviness "Deion" Greene ran for 77 yards and a score and quarterback T.J. Cromer added 70 yards on the ground.
“I knew they had a good running game, but that was one of the surprises,” Jonesboro head coach Timothy Floyd said of Saunders' breakout. “We just made entirely too many mistakes. Westover did a great job taking away some of the plays we made earlier (in the first meeting).”
The Patriots (8-3) took their biggest lead of the game on Saunders’ 17-yard run after he left a Cardinal defender with footprints on his jersey with 5:07 to play. A failed point after attempt left Westover with a 26-14 lead, but Jonesboro answered after Sutton returned the ensuing kickoff 51 yards to set up Cardinals running back Patrick Petty's 2-yard touchdown run with 3:34 to play, cutting the lead to 26-21. Westover picked up a first down with a quarterback sneak on 4th-and-1 to run more clock on its next possession, but Jonesboro (9-2) got the ball back with 1:03 to play.
Cardinals’ quarterback Mario Atkinson, who threw for 174 yards on 11 of 21 passing with one interception, moved Jonesboro into Westover territory, but a fourth-down pass inside the Pats’ 30 was knocked down by Anthony Hill to end the game.
Westover’s defense held Jonesboro to 54 yards rushing and 228 total yards for the game. The return of Dynamite Dozen linebacker Don Mills Jr. and defensive end Josh Burton was a huge difference after the two seniors missed the regular-season loss to Jonesboro.
“Our defense is better than the numbers show,” Jones said. “They made some mental mistakes early in the year, but I said all week I was more confident with (the previously injured defensive players) back.”
Jonesboro, which had a better record and was ranked in the state, was in shock after beating Westover handily the first time around. The Cardinals had to come back to Hugh Mills to face Westover because they were the No. 3 seed in a stacked Region 4-AAAA.
“I think it is unfair (to have to come back to Albany after beating Westover in the regular season), but the way our region was setup that was just something we had to deal with,” Floyd said.
Westover also got touchdowns from Saunders on a 40-yard run in the third quarter to go ahead 20-14 with 1:12 left in the third quarter. Greene added a 3-yard scoring run in the second and Antravious Parks opened the scoring with a 2-yard run in the first quarter. Westover missed two extra points, had another blocked and botched a snap on another.
Jonesboro took an 8-6 lead in the second quarter on Keith Kent’s 16-yard interception return for a score and a 2-point run by Kent on a fake point after. Artemus Mitchell added a 9-yard run with 5:49 to play in the third quarter to give the Cardinals a 14-12 lead after a 2-point conversion failed.
Westover’s Kel Miller had two huge goalline stops for the Patriots. Miller intercepted Atkinson at the Westover 2 on the Cardinals’ first second-half possession. He also tackled Petty inside the 1-yard line on 4th-and-goal in the second quarter to hold Jonesboro off the board, although Kent’s interception return for a touchdown came three plays after the turnover on downs.