“Defense wins championships” is one of the most used clichés in sports. But that doesn’t make it untrue.
Calhoun leaned heavily on an outstanding defensive performance against an explosive Peach County offense to guide them to a 10-6 victory over the Trojans and the Class AAA State Championship on Friday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It is Calhoun’s fourth-ever state title and third since 2011 for head coach Hal Lamb’s program.
For more photos from Friday's game, see Saturday's Calhoun Times. Also, check out Wednesday's Calhoun Times for a commemorative section covering the Jackets' special season.
The Jackets (14-1) held Peach County to 170 total yards and two field goals thanks to strong play by their defensive line against the run and the pass, their linebackers roaming sideline to sideline making big tackles in space and their ball-hawking secondary that came up with two interceptions.
Lamb said he loves this group of kids that rose to the top to bring home a state title and the defense that put on an impressive display on Friday and really all season.
“It’s awesome,” said Lamb. “Nobody really gave us a chance to be here. They didn’t give us a chance to beat Cedar Grove last week, and they didn’t give us a chance to win today. But our kids and our coaches believed, and we kept fighting, scratching and clawing and found a way to win a state title.
“Our defense was amazing. To hold Peach County to six points, I know we had confidence we could have a good day on that side of the ball, but I don’t even think we could envision shutting them down like that as a staff. We held down their quarterback, who is an outstanding player. We knew they were going to have to pass it on us because we are so good against the run, and the kids followed the gameplan and played well. Our secondary made some huge, clutch plays, but our whole defense came through today.”
The game was scoreless through much of the first two quarters as neither offense gained much traction against their talented, locked-in counterparts. But the Jackets got the first score of the game with less than a minute left in the first half, and wouldn’t you know it, it came from their defense. Calhoun safety Brannon Spector stepped in front of a pass from Peach County quarterback Antonio Gilbert and ran it back 46 yards for the only touchdown of the game, which gave his team a 7-0 lead at the break.
Gilbert, who came into the game with only one interception on the season, threw two on Friday, with Calhoun’s Payton Morrow getting the other early in the first quarter.
“Brannon has done that all year for us,” said Lamb. “He was the best player on the field today in my opinion, and he made a great play there. When he intercepted it, I just thought to myself that he had to get it in for a score because I didn’t know if we could’ve against their defense. Obviously that was the biggest play of the game.”
Calhoun made another big play just out of the half as Collin Baggett recovered a pooch kick to start the third quarter. The Jackets turned it into points a few plays later when Elmer Gutierrez connected on a 34-yard field goal.
After Peach County’s Sergio Allen recovered a fumble in Calhoun territory early in the fourth quarter, the Jackets’ defense stiffened again to hold the Trojans to a field goal. Mitchell Fineran connected on a 50-yard attempt to make it 10-3 with 8:36 to play in the game.
Fineran added another field goal with 5:36 to play, this time from 37 yards out, to make it 10-6. Peach County got the ball back a couple minutes later and went for it on fourth-and-eight with a little more than three minutes to go. It appeared Trojans’ receiver Noah Whittington caught a pass and stretched it over the goal line for what would’ve been the go-ahead touchdown, but it was ruled incomplete by the official controversially.
Peach County got one more shot after that, but a short pass on fourth-down near midfield was stopped before the line to gain as the Calhoun defense rallied to the ball for a game-clinching tackle. The Jackets took a knee and celebrated from there.
Other defensive standouts for the Jackets in the contest were Bailey Lester with three total tackles, two tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks, Spector with 7.5 total tackles, Davis Allen with eight total tackles, one tackle-for-loss and a pass breakup, Brice Craig with 3.5 tackles and sack, Zeke Nance with 2.5 tackles-for-loss and a sack and Owen Williams with three total tackles and a half a sack.
Calhoun’s biggest offensive weapon was running back Zack Fuller, who rushed for 74 yards. Aaron Hayes was also big in the field-position aspect of the game as he punted 10 times for an average of 32.9 yards per attempt.