Playing in the Class 4A state quarterfinals, Munford drove down the field for an early 7-0 lead and J.O. Johnson responded quickly with a touchdown and 2-point conversion to take the lead.
However, the rest of the game ended up being what Wagnon is calling the Lions’ most crucial defensive game this season.
After a punt return by Cameron Turner midway through the fourth quarter set the game-winning field goal by Brain Strickland, Munford booked its ticket to the state semifinals for the first time since 1992 with a 10-8 win. The Lions will face Oneonta at home Friday.
“Not to down the other teams we had, but in ninth grade we knew that our senior year was going to be the year. We knew we were going to do big things and go far,” Munford senior Tavon Lawson said. “We’ve been here since coach Wagnon got here and we’ve been under his system. Everything is falling into place.”
And the Munford defense is helping lead the way. The Lions returned nine starters on defense from 2012, and they've rarely struggled to stop teams this season. Munford has held 12 of its 13 opponents to 21 points or less, including eight of those 12 opponents to 14 points or less.
But it’s been the last two games that have been the most important for the Lions.
Munford’s second-round playoff game saw the Lions' 19-0 lead over Guntersville get trimmed to 19-16, but the defense held firm after that in a 26-16 win. Last week against J.O. Johnson, the defense spent the entire third quarter in its own territory because of 20 mph wind, which significantly affected punts at Frank Milton Stadium.
“The whole third quarter the defense had bad field position,” Wagnon said. “If you look at field percentages, if you have the ball on the plus-side of the 50 then you’ve got a good chance of scoring. They had it there four or five times. We gave up some first downs, but we never let them score.”
But Friday night, when the Lions take the field for the first time in the semifinals since before current players were born, the defense will have a test like it hasn’t seen this year.
Oneonta has averaged 47.7 points a game this season. After scoring 56 points in the first round of the playoffs, Oneonta scored 57 against Jacksonville and 44 against Cleburne County, both of which are in Region 5 with Munford.
“I’ve talked to several coaches that have played them, and they said that Oneonta is the toughest team to prepare for as far as scouting and film study,” Wagnon said. “They run so many different formations and so many different good plays and they do a really, really, really good job.
“A lot of times when you play a team that does a lot of stuff, they don't do anything really well and that’s why they have to do a lot of stuff. Oneonta is the opposite. They do a lot of stuff, and they do a lot of stuff well.”
Lawson, who Wagnon calls the quarterback of the defense, said the first key to slowing down Oneonta is to get lined up correctly and read keys. Wagnon said Munford has been working out of a base defense all year and will do the same Friday.
“Last year, we worried about what other teams did. If they lined up like this, we’ll do that. This year, we’ve had a base package that no matter what they line up in, we’re still going to try to stay in that base package,” the coach said. “There are some things Oneonta is going to do that is going to make us come out of our base package, but we’re going to try to continue to do the same thing we’ve done in every game.”
However, the offensive quarterback, Monteo Garrett, said the offense can also help significantly by getting back in the same rhythm that got it average 34.1 points a game through first 11 weeks of the season.
“The offense hasn’t had a good game since against Ardmore in the first round, and the defense has been playing lights out. I can say they’re the reason we’re in the semifinals is because of them,” Garrett said. “The offense is going to have to step it up this week. In order for us to win we’re going to have to execute and stop making mistakes. These last two weeks we’ve made mistakes.”
Lawson said the main thing that has helped the defense is playing together. Garrett said if the offense is capable of feeding off the defense and vice versa, Munford has a much better chance of defeating Oneonta on Friday night.
“We’ve all been playing together,” Lawson said. “We’re not individuals out there. We know each other weaknesses and strengths. We just help each other out.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star.