To reach the state championship game, you need for the ball to bounce your way. For the Marist War Eagles, that’s what happened on a long touchdown pass that bounced off a St. Pius X defender’s head and into the hands of Matthew Houghton, who ran into the end zone untouched.
The magical play would propel the War Eagles to what would become a 35-14 win over their crosstown rivals, the Golden Lions, on Friday at Marist in the Class AAAA quarterfinals.
Now the War Eagles (14-0) are one win away from their first 15-0 season since 1989 after beating the Golden Lions (8-6) for the second time this season. In their third game, they beat St. Pius X 17-14 on the road.
Marist will play another rematch in the AAAA championship game next week against its Region 7 rival Blessed Trinity, which beat Mary Persons 28-7 on Friday. The championship game is set for next Saturday, 4:30 p.m. at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
On Oct. 20, the War Eagles edged Blessed Trinity in a 25-24 thriller.
Houghton’s reception came on the second half’s opening drive. At the time, the War Eagles were clinging to a 13-7 lead and faced a first-and-17 from their own 45 after a holding penalty. Marist quarterback Chase Abshire scrambled from the pocket and threw a 40-yard lob intended for Kyle Hamilton. The pass was high and underthrown and ended up being a jump ball that landed on the helmet of St. Pius X's Jacob Pajer. Houghton was in the right place at the right time, as the ball landed in his hands. He turned the corner and ran the remaining 15 yards untouched, giving the War Eagles a commanding 21-7 lead that was part of a 35-0 run.
“I said to myself, either (Hamilton) makes an amazing catch or I sit there and I’m going to catch the deflection,” said Houghton, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound sophomore. “It just so happened that I caught the deflection and just in the nick of time. I didn’t have any time to think so I just grabbed the ball and ran it in.”
Abshire, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound senior who has guided the offense all season long, turned in another strong performance with 154 yards and two touchdowns on just four passes while rushing for 107 yards and another two touchdowns on 19 carries.
He admits Hamilton’s touchdown reception was not by design.
“We had (6-foot-6 tight end and Georgia commit John Fitzpatrick) going out and (Kyle Hamilton) coming in and it was whoever the safety didn’t take,” Abshire said. “He didn’t take (Hamilton) and I had to move around in the pocket a little bit. I saw him late, underthrew it a little bit and we got lucky.”
After St. Pius X’s next drive ended in a missed 46-yard field goal, Marist went on a 5:33-minute, 13-play drive that covered 80 yards and ended on Abshire’s 6-yard scoring run, making it 28-7 with 25 seconds left in the third quarter. The War Eagles then forced a St. Pius X punt after two sacks and a pass deflection, and on their first play from scrimmage, Abshire threw a 63-yard touchdown strike off a play-action pass to a wide-open Ben Rosing, blowing the game wide open at 35-7 with 9:42 remaining.
St. Pius X would respond on its next drive when Connor Egan completed a 25-yard touchdown pass to Pajer, which brought the score to its final margin with 6:28 remaining.
The Golden Lions started strong, taking the game’s opening possession 80 yards in 15 plays while chewing 7:30 minutes of clock, taking a 7-0 lead on Egan’s 11-yard pass to Zachary Ranson with 4:26 left in the first.
The War Eagles are in their fifth title game under long-time coach Alan Chadwick, who has guided the program since 1985 and is second in career wins among Georgia high school coaches with 364. They’re in their first title game since 2009 and are seeking their first title since 2003, which would be the third in program history — all under Chadwick.
Standing in Marist’s way of a perfect season is a Blessed Trinity team that sent shockwaves across the state by beating No. 1 Cartersville in the second round, snapping the Purple Hurricanes’ 41-game win streak.
“They’re playing really great ball,” Chadwick said of Blessed Trinity. “Anyone who can go to Cartersville and knock off them, then you know they’re a real good ball club. We expect a real war with those guys.”
Abshire led Marist in passing and rushing and Dean Johnson had 73 yards and a score on nine carries. The War Eagles defense recorded six sacks, including one on the game’s last play for a 19-yard loss.
Egan completed 11 of 15 passes for 153 yards and two scores and Scott Braswell had 59 yards on 11 carries for the Golden Lions.
St. Pius X 7 0 0 7 - 14
Marist 6 7 15 7 - 35
S - Zachary Ranson 11 pass from Connor Egan (Will Possert kick)
M - Dean Johnson 11 run (kick failed)
M - Chase Abshire 1 run (Bleekrode kick)
M - Matthew Houghton 55 pass from Abshire (Bleekrode run)
M - Abshire 6 run (Bleekrode kick)
M - Ben Rosing 63 pass from Abshire (Bleekrode kick)
S - Jacob Pajer 25 pass from Egan (Possert kick)