HINESVILLE – Just like it took a while for Calhoun to make the trip to Liberty County, it took them a little while to get going once their Class AAA Elite Eight showdown vs. the Panthers started. But once they did, the Jackets dominated from then on, especially in the second half to earn an impressive 31-7 road victory and advance to the Final Four for the eighth time in the past 10 seasons.
Calhoun coach Hal Lamb said his defense set the tone early in the game, and the offense came through big in the second half to complement their effort en route to the season-extending win.
“It all starts on the defensive side for us,” said Lamb. “When you know that they’re not going to score a whole lot on your defense, it definitely takes some of the pressure off our offense. We didn’t play great offensively in the first half, but we started to make plays after the half and the defense continued to play well all night. We were down a man defensively with Bailey (Lester) not playing a lot, but our guys stepped up. I can’t say enough about their preparation this week, and we came out and played physical, disciplined defense tonight.”
The Jackets (12-1) will now move forward to visit Region 5-AAA No. 1 seed and defending Class AAA state champion Cedar Grove in the State semifinals next week. (Calhoun came up on the short end of the GHSA’s Universal Coin Toss for the second straight week.)
Calhoun led just 10-7 at the half on Friday night against the host Panthers (9-4), but after a stop to start the third quarter from the defense, the Jackets’ offense went down the field and scored to start the dominant avalanche of the second half. Quarterback Gavin Gray connected with Drew Rutledge on a 20-yard touchdown pass, one of three the junior signal-caller had on the night, to make it 17-7. Gray finished with 297 yards on 31-of-38 passes to go with his three touchdowns and one interception and completed balls to 10 different receivers. He, along with Jonkell Tolbert, who rushed for 56 yards and a touchdown, helped pick up the slack for the offense after they lost the team’s leading rusher Zack Fuller early in the game. Lamb said they believe Fuller sustained a concussion on a hard hit in the first quarter, but Gray and Tolbert stepped up to make plays in his absence.
“I didn’t know how much we were going to be able to run the ball against this defense so I knew we were probably going to have to throw it a good bid, and Gavin played very well tonight, taking what the defense gave him,” said Lamb. “And went Zack went down, Jonkell stepped up and made some big runs. He plays a lot of defense for us, and he never complains about his carries on offense, but when it was his time to run tonight, he did a great job. I’m so proud of him.”
The defense almost completely shut down Liberty County’s offensive attack in the second half, limiting the home team to just three first downs.
Calhoun made it 24-7 midway through the fourth quarter on a two-yard TD run by Tolbert added their final score on a 40-yard touchdown pass from Gray to Luke Moseley with 3:41 remaining in the game. The last score was set up by a fumble recovery from Jackets’ defensive lineman CJ Fuller, who had two in the game with the first coming in the second quarter.
Calhoun got on the board on their first drive of the game with an efficient drive that took up almost five minutes and culminated in a 15-yard touchdown pass from Gray to Zeke Nance to make it 7-0.
Liberty County answered to tie things up at 7-7 late in the first quarter on a 74-yard pass from Dionte Bowens to Jaleel Gilbert. Gilbert caught the screen and eluded the Jackets’ defense, using his blazing speed to get around the corner and sprint to the end zone.
The two defenses dug in from there, shutting down their opposition, and each came up with one first-half turnover. Calhoun’s CJ Fuller recovered a fumble near midfield early in the second quarter, and Liberty County’s Cleon Hamilton stopped a promising Calhoun drive with an interception that he returned to the Panthers’ own 41 with 4:30 left in the first half.
The Jackets had one last chance at putting points on the board in the second quarter with a late possession and took advantage of it. Calhoun’s Elmer Gutierrez knocked through a 20-yard field goal to make it 10-7 with 13 seconds left in the first half. The kick was set up by a 56-yard completion from Gray to Bralin Barton, and Gutierrez made the kick a few plays later.
Lamb said a big task awaits in the next round as his team travels to take on Cedar Grove, the same team that eliminated the Jackets last year in the third round before going on to win the whole thing, but he said his team will look forward to the challenge.
“It’s a huge challenge, and we know that Cedar Grove is a great team just like they were last year,” said Lamb. “We’ve really got nothing to lose. Not many people will give us a chance to win that game, but I believe in these kids. We need a great week of preparation, and we’re going to go down there play to the best of our abilities and see what happens.”