Then Saks coach Jonathan Miller dialed up a blitz, and Devin Harris made the play of the night.
Harris tipped a Tyler Jeffreys pass, spun around to catch the rebound and returned it 15 yards for the decisive touchdown with 5:40 to play, and Saks overcame a seven-point halftime deficit to win 20-14 and reach the state semifinals for the third time in school history.
The Wildcats (13-0), who also tied the school record for victories in a season, will play host to Madison Academy (13-0) for a berth in the state finals. Kickoff is 7 p.m. Nov. 29 for arguably the biggest game to be played on Saks’ campus.
Madison Academy survived at Piedmont on Friday, 34-33 in overtime.
“We’re ready for Madison Academy,” said Saks quarterback/defensive back/punter Tre Smith, who threw for 153 yards and rushed for 71 and a 2-point conversion Friday. “We’re ready to defend our home turf.”
Saks last reached the semifinals in 1996 as a 5A school and won at Bradshaw.
The Wildcats reached the finals of a four-team playoff in 1968, beating Fairfield in the semifinals and losing to Russellville in the 3A final. Both games were played at Anniston.
Saks won the 3A, Region 5 title this season with the school’s first 10-0 regular season, then came through Good Hope at home and two Region 8 powers, Lauderdale County and Colbert County, on the road to earn the chance to play at home for a state-final berth.
“That’s great,” Miller said. “I don’t know what we’d do if we had to make another three-hour trip across the state.
“It’s big. I know our community is going to come out and support us. Our kids are going to be excited to play at home. It seems like it’s been forever.”
Saks, making its 13th playoff appearance, won Friday against a school that has six state titles, six runner-up finishes and 37 playoff appearances.
Colbert County got 110 yards on 29 carries from Ryan Carpenter, who rushed for touchdowns of 15 and 13 yards, but the Indians lost in the quarterfinals for the second straight year to finish 11-2.
“They’ve got a really good team,” Colbert coach Dale Jeffreys said of Saks. “They’ve got some really good skill players. The quarterback makes a lot of plays. He gets the ball down field.
“They’re a good team. It’s no shame to lose to a really good team.”
Colbert County led 7-0 at halftime, because of Carpenter’s 15-yard run at 9:10 of the second quarter and missed opportunities for Saks.
Smith broke an 80-yard touchdown run on second play from scrimmage, but a personal foul during the play brought it back.
The Wildcats appeared to be headed for a score in the second quarter, driving from their 24-yard line to a first down at Colbert County’s 15. Smith then threw to Demetrius Powell, who took a hit inside the 5. The ball popped out, and Edwin Gonzalez caught the fumble at the goal line.
Saks also got to the Indians’ 19 later in the second quarter but turned the ball over on downs.
Besides a spirited talk at halftime, Miller and his staff made adjustments, notably throwing on first down.
“We noticed they were blitzing every first down,” said Harris, who also plays running back. “We started throwing on first down.”
Smith hit on passes of 34 yards to Darion Coleman and nine yards to D’Aundre Green on consecutive first-down plays to key Saks’ first scoring drive, a 74-yard march to open the third quarter. Davonte Young, who finished with 92 rushing yards on 16 carries, capped it with a 15-yard touchdown run.
Harris’ conversion run came up short, but Saks pulled within 7-6 at 11:10 of the second quarter. Miller compared the drive to the one that led to Saks’ go-ahead touchdown against Lauderdale County.
“That drive tonight to open the third and our drive last week, when we got down seven in the fourth quarter, were our two biggest drives of the season,” he said.
Saks’ next possession covered 54 yards, with Smith hitting a 12-yard pass to Young and running for 10 and 15 yards on consecutive plays. Young capped it with a 1-yard touchdown run, and Smith added the conversion run to put Saks up 14-7 at 6:35 of the third quarter.
Colbert County answered with Carpenter’s 13-yard touchdown run to tie it at 1:35 of the third quarter, setting the stage for Harris’ game-winning score. From his outside linebacker spot, he came on a blitz from Tyler Jeffreys’ left and jumped to tip the quarterback’s quick screen pass.
“I saw the quarterback rise up and try to throw,” he said. “I tipped the ball then turned around and looked for it.”
Colbert County had one four-play possession after that, turning the ball over when Saks’ Calvin Figueroa stopped Anthony West about a half-yard short on fourth-and-nine.
Saks ran out the final 4:06 with two first downs and Smith taking a knee in the “Victory Formation.”
“I’m so proud of our kids for making the trip up here two weeks in a row,” Miller said. “That says a lot about their character and how they handled the trip in the day. … We came up here on the road, three hours away, two weeks in a row, and beat two good football teams.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, email@example.com. On Twitter @jmedley_star.