On the way to winning its region, Graham survived an early 14-point hole and a half in which it allowed 28 points.
The Steers showed lots of moxie in rallying past Midland Greenwood and Gatesville en route to the Region I-3A title.
Given the choice, Graham coach Kenny Davidson said he'd rather have a better second-half team that finishes games. But he also knows a slow start at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the 3A Division II state semifinals against Gilmer (13-1) at Mansfield's Newsom Stadium would be dooming for the Steers (13-1).
"I think it's pretty obvious we need to play two halves," Davidson said. "The offense had a good first half last week against Gatesville and that was huge to be able to answer them until we got going defensively.
"We can't rely on that every week. We need to make sure we come out ready to play."
Standing in the Steers' way of their second state championship game are the Buckeyes, who are no stranger to big playoff games, having played in three state titles since 2004.
Davidson and his players talked about how fast Gilmer is at every position. While East Texas teams are known for their speed, Buckeyes coach Jeff Traylor downplayed that perceived advantage.
"All stereotypes are just what they are — stereotypes," the 13-year Gilmer coach said. "I don't fall for them. We clocked (Graham tailback Dillon) Gonzales and he's as fast as any of our kids are.
"Their quarterback is real good. He's a playmaker. You don't see him get sacked very much."
Graham has scored at least 40 points in all four playoff games behind junior Ben Davis, who has thrown for 3,237 yards and 31 touchdowns. In the playoffs, Davis is completing almost 80 percent of his passes and averaging 270 yards per game.
While Traylor said the Buckeyes' biggest strength is their veteran defense led by Texas A&M commit Josh Walker, Gilmer's offense hasn't had much trouble scoring.
The Buckeyes have a dual-threat quarterback in Tanner Barr and sophomore Kris Boyd leads a committee backfield averaging 255 rushing yards per game.
"This time of year, offenses are just clicking and it's really hard to hold a team down," Davidson said. "Really a key to our defense is we have to make sure we read our keys quickly. It's a speed game. Last week, that quarterback was so quick and I think we got accustomed to the speed of the game. We won't have that luxury against Gilmer."
Graham defensive back Hunter Jones said Gilmer doesn't throw a lot of deep balls, but that it could turn short passes into long scores. He said tackling and being in good position would be important.
"They're quick and they have speed on their team, but I think our scheme is pretty good," Jones said. "We've been known to shut down running teams so we're looking forward to this week."
Tonight's winner advances to the Class 3A Division II state championship set for 4 p.m. Friday at Cowboys Stadium. Navasota (14-0) and Bellville (11-3) are playing at 7 p.m. today in Waller for the other spot.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Beat Mineral Wells, 53-7
Beat Brownwood, 28-7
Lost to Abilene Wylie, 31-7
Beat Breckenridge, 44-0
Beat Springtown, 32-28
Beat Bridgeport, 54-0
Beat Vernon, 34-24
Beat Iowa Park, 38-0
Beat Hirschi, 47-18
Beat Burkburentt, 48-0
Beat Lake Worth, 44-7
Beat Glen Rose, 42-28
Beat Midland Greenwood, 41-23
Beat Atlanta, 31-17
Lost to Plano Prestonwood, 42-12
Beat Jacksonville, 34-33
Beat Daingerfield, 43-14
Beat Gladewater, 21-13
Beat Tyler Chapel Hill, 50-28
Beat Henderson, 28-26
Beat Longview Spring Hill, 59-10
Beat Bullard, 57-39
Beat Kilgore, 20-14
Beat Canton, 51-36
Beat Atlanta, 57-13
Beat Argyle, 42-21
Beat Henderson, 41-34
Pigskin Prep says: Gilmer by 12