In what turned out to be just as much of a brutal, physical slugfest of a game as initially advertised between a pair of Class AAA’s most dynamic and complete rosters, the Peach County Trojans proved more opportunistic, defeating Calhoun 22-7 on Friday at The Reeve and closing the door on the Jackets’ state playoff run.
As with many games between equal opponents, it was apparent from the opening whistle that the team that made the least amount of mistakes, while also capitalizing on the opposition’s miscues, would emerge victorious, and that’s is exactly what propelled Peach County (12-2) to an early lead.
On a fourth-and-long on Calhoun’s (13-1) third possession, Peach County’s Jamir Best busted through the offensive line and got his hands on a Aaron Hayes punt attempt for a punt block, while also pouncing the loose ball himself, to give the Trojans optimal field position on the Jackets’ six-yard line.
Peach County quarterback Jaydon Gibson soon cashed in, powering in a quarterback keeper for a six-yard, tone-setting touchdown.
“We made too many mistakes to win the ballgame,” Calhoun head coach Hal Lamb said. “We had our opportunities to score early, but you can't make mistakes like we did tonight, like those two blunders in the punt team, and you can’t do that against good teams. Our kids played hard, but we just couldn’t execute like we needed to.”
Calhoun maintained its composure after that deficit, however, and quickly produced an answer. Sparked by a 46-yard screen pass from quarterback Gavin Gray to Bralin Barton, in which Barton snagged the pass then sliced through multiple defenders, the Jackets capped off a its only scoring drive with a one-yard quarterback sneak muscled in by Gray in the early second quarter.
It looked as if the Jackets were poised to flip the field on an interception by Brannon Spector on the next possession. However, Calhoun uncharacteristically failed to transform the turnover into points, with the offense going three-and-out in what had the appearance of an opportunity for a turning point in the game.
Special teams execution then harmed the Jackets again, as Hayes struggled to hold onto the snap due to the wet conditions and dropped the ball. This time, it was Noah Whittington who scooped up the fumble on the Calhoun 46.
In a night where both signal-callers struggled to connect deep for most of the night, Gibson produced perhaps the best throw of the game on a 31-yard pass to Justin Harris for six, with the Trojans failing to convert the extra point. Peach County entered the halftime locker room with a 13-6 edge on the scoreboard.
It seemed as Peach County ratcheted up its pressure on both the defensive line and secondary in the second half, winning the battle of the trenches in a third quarter that was largely defined by sacks, punts and negative plays. The Trojans managed to extend its lead to 16-7 on a 31-yard field goal by Rene Galan.
The Jackets showed a lot of resilience in the final period, halting the Trojans on a fourth-and-goal in order to create a couple more opportunities to try and rally. Although moments later, Harris added what proved to be the dagger in favor of Peach County, returning an interception 46 yards for a touchdown to lock in the win.
It was tough sledding from both a passing and rushing standpoint for Calhoun, with Gray making the most of the small windows he had to throw. He finished 19-40 passing for 244 yards along with his rushing score. Bralin Barton was the leading receiver with six catches for 72 yards. With the gap-discipline and physicality of the Trojan defense, and an early exit due to an apparent injury for Zack Fuller, Calhoun was led in rushing by Spector, who had 16 yards on one long carry.
The loss puts a end on another decorated, exhilarating and successful chapter of Calhoun football. It’s the last time that one of the program’s most accomplished senior classes will strap on the helmet.
“[This senior class] is a special bunch,” Lamb said. “They are a tight-knit group that felt like it had a chance to win a state championship.”
“But this time of year everyone is good, if you don’t come and play well you’ll get beat. But these seniors are unbelievable, and they have done everything I have asked them to do. A lot of them will go on to play at the next level. We we want them to go on to be good fathers and good husbands, and there are a lot more important things in life than this game.”