A lot of Calhoun High School football players and coaches saw daybreak early Saturday morning.

And despite their nearly 24-hour odyssey of having to go from the Northwest corner of the state to the Southeast (and back), the new dawn came with a pep in their step and a smile on their face because just hours earlier, the sun did not go down on their season.

Traveling 307 miles during the day and then going the extra mile all night long at Memorial Stadium in Waycross, the Yellow Jackets scored with three minutes left and got a deciding game-ending defensive stop as the clock neared zero to take a wild 49-42 win Friday over Ware County and now advance to the Elite Eight next weekend in the GHSA 5A state playoffs.

The Yellow Jackets take on Clarke Central Friday in Athens with a trip to the 5A state semifinals on the line in a rematch of last year’s second-round contest between the two, which Calhoun won 33-14. Clarke Central moved into the Elite Eight by eliminating Starr’s Mill, 24-7 Friday night at home.

It was a classic game that saw the score tied at 7, 21, 28, 35, and 42 and Calhoun have the lead for just seven minutes all night, but that high-powered Jacket offense would score 21 points in the final nine-and-a-half-minutes to rally the team from a 35-28 deficit early in the fourth quarter for the win that keeps their state title hopes alive.

They began the comeback with senior quarterback Christian Lewis throwing a 47-yard touchdown pass to receiver Quin Smith to knot it at 35 after Sergio Sanchez’s fifth point-after kick with 9:35 remaining.

Then Ware County traveled deep into Calhoun territory before two huge penalties and a crucial fourth-and-two stop by the Swarm defense forced them to turn the ball over on downs at their own 25. Lewis completed three passes to three different guys and then rushed for a 22-yard score to give Calhoun its first lead since the first quarter — a 42-35 edge with 5:52 remaining.

Less than two minutes later, the home team tied the game on a nine-yard touchdown run and with 4:09 left it was 42-42.

Unbothered, the Jackets then put together the game-winning drive with an 11-play, 80-yard march where they threw three passes and relied on the running of Caden Williams, who scored the game-winning three-yard touchdown with 1:47 to go after the Jackets converted a key fourth down running play that kept the clock going.

The Gators were not exactly done though, using a couple of long runs to park themselves at the Calhoun 2-yard-line with a first and goal and 20 seconds left in regulation. But the Jacket defense caused a fumble at the goal line and then recovered the loose ball to send the loud-all-night Calhoun faithful to another decibel.

Calhoun scored first to start the game, but Ware County scored the next 21 points in a row to go up 21-7 and would lead 21-14 at halftime. The game was tied at 28 at the end of the third period.

Calhoun is now 10-2 on the year and Ware County closes with a 9-2 mark.

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