Coaches always stress the importance of playing well in all three phases, and on Friday night that often overlooked third phase came into play in a big way for the Calhoun Yellow Jackets.
The Jackets came up with a couple huge plays on special teams that turned the momentum in their favor in the second quarter of their Class AAA State Playoff Second Round matchup against Monroe Area, and they proved to be one of the deciding factors in a 28-20 victory to keep their season alive.
Calhoun (11-1) recovered a loose ball on a punt that hit off a Monroe Area player late in the second quarter, and Zack Fuller converted that into points a few plays later on a one-yard touchdown run to make it 14-7. On the next possession with Monroe Area (10-2) backed up deep in their own territory, the Jackets sent pressure and blocked a punt with Collin Baggett recovering the ball in the end zone for a touchdown to make it 21-7.
Calhoun coach Hal Lamb said the special teams plays made a significant impact in a hard-fought win.
“Those were real big,” said Lamb. “We didn’t play our greatest overall game, but give (Monroe Area) credit. They were tough, and they wouldn’t go away. Sometimes you’ve got to win games like this when it gets to this time of the season. Our team found a way, and that’s the important thing. This time of year it’s survive and advance, and we definitely survived tonight.”
The Jackets now advance to the Elite Eight for the 10th straight season and will visit Liberty County, the No. 1 seed from Region 2-AAA, next Friday. (The home site was determined by a universal coin toss conducted by the GHSA earlier on Friday.)
After leading 21-7 at the break, Monroe Area continued to battle to stay in the game and pulled within 21-10 midway through the third quarter on a 35-yard field goal by Brandon Ferguson, his first of two on the night.
The Jackets responded with a long drive that stretched into the fourth quarter and punctuated it with a touchdown to make it 28-10 as they reached into their bag of tricks. Quarterback Gavin Gray threw a lateral pass to Davis Allen, who then found Luke Moseley wide open in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown pass.
“We put that play in there this week, and I thought it would be a good spot to use it,” said Lamb. “It was third-and-four, and we knew they would be aggressive there, and we executed it perfect. Davis made a perfect pass there.”
The Jackets looked like they were going in to seal the game on their next drive as they had it deep into Monroe Area territory, but a fumble was picked up by the Hurricanes’ Jakia Thompson and he returned it 72 yards to pull his team within two possessions at 28-17. After the teams traded possessions a couple times, Monroe Area got another chance with the ball and pushed it deep into Calhoun territory where Ferguson made it a one-possession game thanks to a 23-yard field goal with 1:39 to play.
However, the ensuing onside-kick attempt was unsuccessful for the Hurricanes as Calhoun’s Nate Bonner pounced on the rolling ball. The Jackets took three kneel-downs and ran the clock out from there.
The game started with the teams trading defensive stops back and forth a few times in the first quarter, but Calhoun got on the board early in the second quarter when Fuller ran one in from 12 yards out to make it 7-0. Fuller had his second straight 100-yard performance in the playoffs as he ran for 147 yards on 27 carries and the two TDs. Gray finished with 155 yards on 15-of-21 passing.
Monroe Area answered right back, however, with a long touchdown drive that was punctuated by a 36-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Chandler Byron to Thompson to tie it at 7-7 before the wild end to the first half. Byron was difficult to bring down all night as he avoided several sure Calhoun tackles. The junior quarterback finished with 51 yards on the ground and added 155 yards passing.
Calhoun’s Owen Williams came up with a fumble recovery in the first quarter at the Hurricanes’ 36-yard line, but the Jackets were unable to convert it into points even with the short field.
With the long road trip ahead next Friday, Lamb said his team will prepare and be ready to play against a talented Liberty County team.
“The road trip is what it is,” said Lamb. “We’ll make the trip and see what happens. We’ve got to be ready to play because they are a very good team. Everyone is good at this point with only eight teams left.”