By PATRICK CASEY
The Walton Braves wrapped up a Class 4A playoff berth with an exciting 27-20 home victory over the Marianna Bulldogs in a game that wasn’t decided until the final seconds of the contest on Friday night.
Walton took their opening possession of the game and began to pound away at the Marianna defense with junior running back Javon Graham as well as consistent passing from senior quarterback Thomas Brack. The Braves moved down to the Bulldogs’ 5-yard line before the drive stalled with Brack drilling a 21-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead with 6:15 left in the opening quarter.
A 14-yard punt by the Bulldogs on their next possession set Walton up at the Marianna 40-yard line with the Braves needing six plays to score as Graham dove in from a yard out to increase the lead to 10-0.
Marianna got the offense going with running back Werlean Pollock answering with a 20-yard scoring run with just 21 seconds left in the first quarter to cap an 80-yard drive that cut the lead to 10-6 after a bad snap killed the extra point try.
Walton came right back with another touchdown of their own as Graham capped 7-play, 63-yard drive with a 7-yard run that put the host squad ahead 17-6 early in the second quarter.
Marianna moved 79 yards for their second touchdown of the night as senior receiver Jaeden Harley hauled in a 12-yard strike from back-up quarterback Marquis Kelly to get the Jackson County squad within 17-12 with 4:25 left in the first half after their extra point attempt was blocked by Walton’s Kentrell Parker.
The score remained 17-12 until Marianna coughed up a fumble at their own 9-yard line with Michael Tolbert falling on the loose pigskin to give the Braves excellent field position with a chance to increase the lead.
Walton was unable to punch the ball into the endzone but Brack delivered a 22-yard field goal to push the lead to 20-12 with 8:19 left in the third quarter.
Marianna went back to work with Pollock running the ball and a series of swing passes around the line of scrimmage to move 72 yards for a touchdown with Pollock crashing in from one yard out to trim the margin to 20-18. Pollock then added the two-point conversion run to tie the game at 20-all with 2:45 to go in the third quarter.
The Walton offense went back to work with a signature drive of their own as Brack and Graham deftly guided the Braves 65 yards down the field. Parker added a 20-yard reception that saw him jump high in the air to snag a key pass to keep the drive going and Graham would cash in with a 12-yard run that was followed by Brack’s extra point for a 27-20 lead just 12 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Marianna was forced to punt and the Braves began a drive that would have likely put the game away only to come up inches shy of a first down at the Bulldogs’ 23-yard line with 7:32 left in the game.
The Bulldogs went back to work with their running game as Pollock pounded away, carrying the football nearly every play until the visiting team reached the Walton 3-yard line. Disaster then struck as Kelly and Pollock ran into each other on a hand-off attempt with the ball escaping Kelly’s grasp with Walton defensive lineman Adam Hydle falling on the ball to end the drive with 2:27 left in the game.
Graham then helped the Braves move from their own 4-yard line to the 26 as he picked up a pair of first downs that helped Walton run out the rest of the clock and capture their third victory in a row over the Bulldogs while also earning a playoff berth. Walton(2-5) will host East Gadsden on Oct. 28 with the winner earning the district championship and home playoff game while the loser will finish as the runner-up and earn a difficult road playoff game, likely in the Jacksonville area.
Graham finished the game with 152 rushing yards and three touchdowns while Brack connected on 12-of-18 passes for 164 yards. Brack also added nine points via the kicking game, giving him 103 total kicking points in four years.
Pollock ran for 193 yards on 29 carries with Kelly completing 11-of-16 passes for 89 yards with Jaeden Harley hauling in seven passes for 72 yards. Marianna lost their third consecutive game to fall to 4-3 overall and 0-2 in district play as both the Bulldogs and Rutherford have been eliminated from the playoff hunt.
Walton will now travel for their final road game of the regular season to Bratt to face the Northview Chiefs (5-3) with kickoff set for 7 p.m. on Friday night.