Prep Football: Jackets’ defense, clutch plays lead way to Benz

Calhoun’s Davis Allen (44) runs toward the end zone on a six-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.

Tim Godbee, Photographer

DECATUR – Calhoun’s defense has been consistently stifling all season so in the team’s biggest game and against one of their biggest challenges of the year, why would anyone expect any different?

The Jackets defense made life extremely hard on Cedar Grove’s high-powered offense in Friday’s Final Four matchup at Buck Godfrey Stadium, and the result was allowing six points and forcing four turnovers while helping Calhoun punch their ticket to the Class AAA State Championship Game next Friday with a 14-6 victory.

It is the first appearance in the finals for Calhoun (13-1) since they won the state title in 2014. The Jackets will take on Peach County for the Class AAA crown next Friday at 1 p.m. at Mercedes-Benz stadium.

The Calhoun defense held Cedar Grove (13-1) to just 172 yards on the night, and junior defensive back Bralin Barton came up with three huge interceptions.

“I thought our defense had a good plan tonight, and they executed it,” said Calhoun coach Hal Lamb. “We knew we had to double team No. 2 (Jadon Haselwood) because he is a great player. Our defense was sound all night, and they executed to perfection.

“I knew we had to get on the board first because I don’t think (Cedar Grove) has been behind all season. And we kept making play after play in big situations after that. I can’t say enough about our defense and our team. These kids buy into everything, whether that’s at practice or in the weight room. I’m so proud of them.”

After the Calhoun defense forced multiple three-and-outs to start the game, the Jackets’ special teams came through with a blocked punt late in the first quarter, which they recovered at the Cedar Grove 12.

A few plays later, Calhoun quarterback Gavin Gray found Davis Allen on a perfectly-executed throwback screen to the tight end for a six-yard touchdown pass to make it 7-0. Gray finished with 198 yards on 19-of-30 passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Calhoun’s defense came up with another turnover on the ensuing Saints’ drive as Bralin Barton picked off a Cedar Grove pass at the 36 in their opponents’ territory. Calhoun looked to be in position to go up two scores, but a pass was picked off in the end zone by Cedar Grove’s Malik Johnson for a touchback.

The Jackets’ defense came through with a clutch stop near the end of the first half as a fourth-down pass by the Saints was knocked out of the receiver’s hands and incomplete to preserve Calhoun’s 7-0 lead, which they took to the half.

The Jackets got a stop on Cedar Grove’s first possession of the second half, and the offense quickly turned around and added a touchdown to their lead on a 60-yard pass from Gray to Brannon Spector to make it 14-0.

After the teams swapped interceptions toward the end of the third quarter with Barton grabbing his second at the Calhoun 16, and then Jadon Haselwood snagging one at the Calhoun 27 a few plays later, Cedar Grove finally got on the board when quarterback Xavier Dennis leaped over the pile at the one-yard line for a touchdown. After the PAT sailed wide, Calhoun still led 14-6 late in the third quarter.

The Jackets’ defense got their third turnover when Barton picked off a long pass inside the 10 midway through the fourth quarter.

“I told my teammates on the way here that I know they had my back, and I’ve got theirs,” said Barton of his three-interception performance. “We do whatever it takes to be good on defense. We watched film and practiced great this week. Our front six is incredible. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to get those interceptions.”

The Jackets took the ball after Barton’s interception and ran off more than six minutes to ice the game away thanks to some huge third-down throws from Gray to Collin Baggett, Spector and Allen.

“That was a big drive to run the clock out because there was no way we wanted to give the ball back to them to have another chance,” said Lamb. “We got some huge third-down conversions to keep it going. We executed very well in the second half on offense, and that last drive was huge.”

Spector had several huge receptions for the Jackets and finished with five catches for 105 yards. Zack Fuller returned from a concussion last Friday to run for 70 yards on 26 carries to help the offense churn out first downs and run clock.

Lamb said he is excited for what this next week holds for the team and the community leading up to playing for a state title.

“I’m so happy for our community,” said Lamb. “To get to play a game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a state title is special. I’m happy for these kids. To come down here and play the way they did and get a great win is incredible. It’s all about these kids, and they get to go play for a state title.”

“This means so much to us,” added Barton. “I can’t explain how long I’ve been dreaming about this. We get to play at The Benz for a state title. We’re going to be ready.”