Calhoun was expecting one of the toughest first-round tests they’ve ever had in the playoffs, and that’s exactly what they got…for a half.
The Jackets hosted a big and talented Pace Academy team on Friday in the first round of the Class AAA State Playoffs at The Reeve, and the No. 4 seed Knights hung in the game through the first two quarters, trailing only 10-3 at the half. But Calhoun dominated the second half, thanks in large part to their stout defense and bruising running game, to run away for a 27-3 victory.
Calhoun coach Hal Lamb said his team used a physical and aggressive approach on both sides of the ball, and that started to take a toll on Pace Academy in the second half to make the difference in the game.
“We knew going into the game that the defenses were really the strength of both teams, and our defense played incredible again tonight,” said Lamb. “Even when (Pace Academy) had a few short fields, our defense came up with big stops. I think we really wore them down as a team, and that showed in the second half. We kept pounding away with the running game, and it took a while to get going, but we knew we could wear them down with it. I feel like we played a really good, smart game tonight, and we’re happy with the win and opportunity to move on.”
Calhoun (10-1) now advances to the second round for the 17th straight season, and they will host Monroe Area next Friday.
Leading 10-3 at the half, Calhoun got a huge play on special teams to seize the momentum after being forced to punt on their opening possession of the third quarter as Pace Academy (5-5) muffed a punt, and the Jackets’ Zane McCracken jumped on the ball for the recovery at the Knights’ 27 yard line. On the next play, running back Zack Fuller exploded for a 27-yard touchdown run to put the Jackets up 17-3, and they never looked back after that.
Fuller had a huge night in the rushing category as the Jackets’ went to him often to wear down the Pace Academy defense. The junior racked up 170 yards on 23 carries with two touchdowns. He had 117 of those yards in the second half as he and the offensive line put their stamp on the game.
“We really didn’t know how much success we would have in the running game going into tonight just because (Pace Academy) was so big, but Zack and our offensive line kept pounding and found some holes,” said Lamb. “We weren’t able to take as many shots in the passing game because of the wind, and the running game really came through for us. It was a great effort by Zack and our offensive line tonight.”
The Jackets put together another big scoring drive to end the third quarter, and it was capped off by a 30-yard touchdown pass from Gavin Gray to Brannon Spector to make the score 24-3 going into the fourth. Gray finished with 157 yards on 15-of-22 passing with a touchdown.
Calhoun’s defense clamped down and didn’t allow the Knights to really get anything consistent going as they limited Pace Academy’s offense to just 148 total yards and only 40 on the ground.
The Jackets put a little extra icing on the cake late as they churned away yards and the clock on a fourth-quarter drive which resulted in a 27-yard field goal by Elmer Gutierrez with 4:48 to play. It was his second field goal of the night after connecting from 22 yards out in the second quarter.
The Jackets took a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter when Fuller ran in a touchdown from four yards out to cap off a long, successful drive. They added to their lead in the second quarter on the 22-yard field goal by Gutierrez after a drive stalled inside the Pace Academy 10-yard line with 9:59 on the clock.
Pace Academy got back in the game on the ensuing drive in the second quarter as they converted a field goal of their own with Patrick Markwalter knocking one in from 48 yards away to make it 10-3, but those were the last points the Knights would muster.
Lamb said his team is ready for another big night next Friday on their home turf against Monroe Area.
“Phil Reeve Stadium is a special place, and we are excited to be back here again next Friday,” said Lamb. “We played Monroe Area last year in the playoffs, but they are a lot better team than last year. They are going to come in here ready and with a little revenge on the mind. We’ve got to be ready, but playing here at home is a big deal to us.”