Saraland’s Ryan Williams looks for a cutback during the Spartans’ 51-14 win over Briarwood Friday night in Birmingham. Williams scored three touchdowns, including a 60-yard punt return and a 42-yard run, two big plays on which he ran past a combined 13 defenders. (Will McLelland/Call News)
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
BIRMINGHAM — So No. 1-ranked Saraland wasn’t perfect Friday night. It had five holding penalties, one of which snatched away a touchdown. K.J. Lacey threw an interception. The offense didn’t score on every possession. And, perhaps most surprising of all, Briarwood pulled off a halfback pass on its second play to help put the Spartans behind for only the third time this season.
But Saraland quickly leaped out of bed, threw on boots made for stomping and left town with a 51-14 win over the Lions in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs.
Briarwood’s lead lasted just 26 seconds before the defending state champions opened the gates to their temple of zoom, responding to the Lions’ early lead with an avalanche of big-play touchdowns, all in the first quarter before the popcorn had a chance to cool down — Dillon Alfred’s 64-yard catch and run from Lacey, Ryan Williams’ 60-yard punt return and Santae McWilliams’ 63-yard run on fourth-and-1 behind pulling guard Landon Harris.
The Spartans (12-0) scored touchdowns on six of their 10 possessions with the starters on the field, giving the starters 78 touchdowns on 90 possessions this season. They have also outscored opponents 250-14 in the first quarter and 465-58 in the first half.
“Our players want to score every time,” Saraland coach Jeff Kelly said. “You look at the stats, they’re staggering. I want our kids to play with an edge, to run the offense in a hurry and score as quick as we can, and we’ve got to continue to play that well because the challenges get bigger and bigger as the playoffs go on.”
The Spartans — who extended the state’s longest winning streak to 18 straight games and have won 36 of their last 38 games — will host No. 3-ranked Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa (12-0) in the quarterfinals next week.
Williams, the reigning Mr. Football who is committed to Alabama, scored three touchdowns, including a 7-yard TD pass from a scrambling Lacey in the first quarter after Saraland recovered the first of three Briarwood fumbles, this one at the Lions’ 33.
On his punt return and a 42-yard TD run on an end-around in the third quarter, Williams burst past a combined 13 defenders.
Williams picked up the low punt on the first bounce and made Briarwood chase a vapor.
“When you line drive me, (a touchdown) can be the only outcome,” Williams said. “To me, line drive equals touchdown. When I saw it take a bounce, it was time to go.”
Lacey, who is committed to Texas and may be the only player who can take the Mr. Football trophy away from Williams, fought off near-constant blitzing to complete 20 of 30 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns. He completed nine straight passes at one point in the first half.
“They were back there a lot and made it uncomfortable for me,” Lacey said, “but we still put up 50 points. Winning is the main thing.”
McWilliams added a 1-yard TD run, Deshawn Spencer scored on a 4-yard run and Tucker Singleton kicked a 29-yard field goal as the Spartans led 28-7 after one quarter, 35-7 at halftime and 51-7 after three quarters.
“We did the best we could,” Lions coach Matthew Forester said. “They’re a really good team and they did an amazing job. They’ve got a lot of playmakers out there. That’s never the way you want your season to end but only one team in 6A will end with a win.”
Who will be that one team? Forester took the middle ground when asked who he would pick to win in a dream state championship game — Saraland or No. 2 Clay-Chalkville. Briarwood lost to the Cougars 31-0 in the season opener.
“We started the season with Clay-Chalkville and ended it with Saraland and that’s not an easy task,” he said. “I’ve got my money on somebody but I’m not saying. They both have great skill people, good lines and defensive backs who can match up with each other.”
The Spartans’ starting defense had 12 tackles for losses, allowed only two first downs and 59 yards of total offense Friday night, although star defensive tackle and Alabama commitment Antonio Coleman admitted being stung by the 68-yard halfback pass from Cooper Higgins to Caleb Keller on the Lions’ second play to set up Higgins’ 1-yard run for a 7-0 lead.
“We thought it was a stretch play, then we saw they were getting ready to throw it,” Coleman said. “It was like a movie. Touchdown. Unbelievable. They shouldn’t have even scored. But that sparked us up. It was an adrenaline rush.”
Kelly also admired the trick play.
“What a great call,” he said. “We took the bait. But our guys didn’t panic.”
On Saraland’s first play, Lacey threw a wide receiver screen to Alfred, who got a good block from C.D. Gill, then dismissed two more defenders to tie it 7-7.
“K.J. made a great throw out in the flat and Dillon gave them a great answer,” Kelly said.
After that, Briarwood had no answers as the Spartans piled up 449 yards of total offense and converted three fumbles into touchdowns. Defensive lineman Jermaine Paramore caused the first one, which defensive end Chris Thompson recovered at the Lions’ 33 in the first quarter. Defensive back Brooks Womble recovered one at Briarwood’s 21 in the second quarter after McWilliams’ 63-yard run and safety Xavier Crenshaw fell on the third one at the Lions’ 27 in the third quarter.
Saraland scored on its first four possessions, then failed to score on its last three of the first half to lead 35-7 at halftime.
“I got in a hurry there late in the first half on some things but we came out with composure in the third quarter and did what good teams do and put the game away,” Kelly said.
Center Bryceson Chastang said the Spartans were prepared for Briarwood’s blitzing but still had to adjust to it.
“We practiced against the blitz all week but we still weren’t used to getting blitzed like that,” he said. “We came out in the third quarter and started stopping it.”
Williams gave the Lions (6-6) the respect he said they deserved.
“We knew they were physical even though their record might not show it,” he said. “We had to play them like they were undefeated. But we also left a lot on the table.”
Saraland had more first downs (17-6), plus 177 yards rushing and 272 passing, and Briarwood had minus 14 yards rushing until Kelly put in his backups in the fourth quarter.
McWilliams had 88 yards on eight carries and Williams had 43 on three carries and five receptions for 60 yards. Alfred had 96 yards on five catches.
“I can’t say enough about a total team effort,” Kelly said. “We had a lot of guys make plays offensively. (Briarwood is) pretty tough defensively with all the different looks and blitzes.”
The Spartans are now 6-0 all time on the road in the second round, 73-0 all time when scoring 40-plus points and lead Class 6A at 54 points per game.