CONYERS - Four second-half turnovers were too much for Rockdale to overcome Friday night at Reid Memorial Stadium.
Clarke Central (5-1) took advantage of two Bulldog fumbles 14 seconds apart in the third quarter to open up a 31-12 lead and then held on at the end for a 37-32 victory.
"Yeah, I thought this was going to be a track meet all week," Rockdale coach Mike Etheridge said. "We were just trying to figure out how we were going to score. We were going to try to take advantage of some things. We did score some points, but what I wanted to do was try to get up and then keep pounding it.
"But after the turnovers in the third quarter, it wasn't in the cards for us. After that, we had to go to our hurry-up (offense)."
Rockdale (3-2) took advantage of two breaks to build a 12-0 lead in the first quarter.
Javon Lucas scored on a 5-yard run at 8:01 only five plays after the Bulldogs recovered the ball after a punt hit a Clarke Central player in the helmet.
Later in the opening quarter, Rockdale punter Darius Lucas scrambled for 21 yards and a first down after a low snap. The Bulldogs extended their lead to 12-0 on a 17-yard run by Lucas at 2:31.
Clarke Central quarterback John Wilson connected on four straight passes for 70 yards to set up his 9-yard touchdown run with 18 seconds left in the first quarter, cutting Rockdale's lead to 12-7.
Wilson scored, once again, right before the end of the first half on a 1-yard run with 12 seconds remaining to give the Gladiators a 14-12 halftime advantage.
In the third quarter, Clarke Central had the ball for all but 16 seconds of the first 8:16 of the period, tacking on 17 points for a 31-12 lead.
Wilson connected with wide receiver Dimitri Holmes on three straight plays to either score or set up the points.
First, Wilson capped off a 12-play, 80-yard drive to start the third quarter with a 6-yard scoring toss to Holmes on a crossing route at 7:23.
The Bulldogs coughed up the ensuing kickoff on their 23. On the next play, Wilson and Holmes made them pay with a 23-yard touchdown pass on a double move for a 28-12 lead.
Once again, Rockdale fumbled away the kick, this time at its own 37. On the next play, Wilson and Holmes hooked up again for 36 yards down to the 1.
Wilson finished the game with 102 yards and two scores on the ground and 232 yards passing and a pair of touchdown passes. Holmes had nine catches for 158 yards.
But this time, Rockdale's defense hung tough, forcing Noah Welch's 24-yard field goal at 3:45.
In the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs battled back and almost pulled off a miracle.
Quarterback Isaiah Gresham and Lucas connected on a 52-yard gain early in the fourth quarter. Three plays later, Gresham hit Tavarius Williams for a 14-yard touchdown strike with 9:55 left in the game, cutting the deficit to 31-19.
Only 1:30 later, Rockdale cornerback Adrianne Brown intercepted a Wilson pass and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown, pulling the Bulldogs to within five points at 31-26 with 8:20 left in the contest.
But on the ensuing kickoff, Clarke Central's Derrick Smalls broke loose for a 65-yard return into Rockdale territory at the 31. Seven plays later, Drew Jones scored on an 8-yard run, giving the Gladiators a 37-26 lead with 6:29 to play.
With 3:08 left in the game, Rockdale linebacker Chris Brooks recovered a Clarke Central fumble at his own 15.
Two plays later, Gresham found Williams over the middle for a 13-yard scoring strike with 2:26 left in the contest, cutting the Gladiators' lead to 37-32 after the Bulldogs failed on their two-point conversion try.
The Bulldogs' Shadon Bernard recovered the onside kick after it bounced off a Clarke Central player at the 49.
Gresham, who finished the game with 163 yards passing, found Lucas for 8 yards and a key first down on a fourth-down play at the Clarke Central 41.
But on the next play, the Gladiators Cedric Byrd collected his third interception of the game to wrap up the victory with 40 seconds remaining.
"We're trying to teach our kids to keep battling and to keep fighting. We talked about that every day," Etheridge said. "We did that tonight. I thought our effort was tremendous. We played hard, we just couldn't overcome some of our mistakes."
Lucas rushed 19 times for 132 yards to pace Rockdale on the ground. He also had a team-high five catches for 128 yards.
Jeff Gillespie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.