ATLANTA - Football games are made up of moments -- some good, some bad and some that win or lose championships. For the Calhoun Yellow Jackets, their moment came late in the third quarter of Saturday's GHSA Class AA title game.
In a span of three minutes in that third period against a physically superior Jefferson team, the defending champion Jackets had gone from 14 points down to trailing by a touchdown and regaining possession. However, the comeback was quelled as a tipped Taylor Lamb pass became an interception that led to a touchdown.
Following the final whistle of what turned into a 31-14 Dragons win, the Jackets lamented their missed opportunity.
"The momentum was turning, but the tipped ball led to the interception and we lost the momentum," Taylor Lamb said. "We had our shot. They just played a better game. We just didn't execute. We had our chances but we didn't take them."
Calhoun (14-1) had to settle for its fifth runner-up trophy under coach Hal Lamb as the Dragons (14-1) ran up 456 yards. Versatile senior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs accounted for 332 of the yards.
"He's the difference," Coach Lamb said of Shirreffs, who ran for 126 yards and three touchdowns and completed 14 of 18 passes for 196 yards. "He's a great football player and he's a winner. There were two great quarterbacks on the field tonight, and I would take ours any day of the week. Also, we really missed [injured linebacker] Fields Chapman, who is our emotional leader on defense.
"You've got to give those credit, though. They made the plays when they got the chance. We had several shots at him but just couldn't make the plays."
Shirreffs led Jefferson on a 13-play, 74-yard drive to open the game and set the tone with a 30-yard completion to the 3 on third-and-18. On the play, the quarterback was hit twice behind the line before escaping. Three plays later fullback Tristen Jackson scored from the 1 for a 7-0 lead.
"We count on scoring first, we did and it worked out nicely," Shirreffs said of the drive that ate up six minutes. "That gave us confidence that we could win, even though I had a feeling in my heart we would before the game."
Calhoun tied the game at 7 late in the quarter after forcing a fumble at the Jefferson 29, with quarterback Lamb connecting with Logan Walraven on a 17-yard touchdown pass. Undaunted, Shirreffs led Jefferson right back downfield, completing three passes and twice scrambling to convert third downs before capping the drive with a 3-yard run three minutes into the second quarter.
The shootout many expected appeared to be on when Taylor Lamb hit Tydus Curtis for 25 yards to the Jefferson 21 just three plays later, but the drive stalled and Coach Lamb elected to go for it on fourth-and-9. His nephew, flushed out of the pocket by a quick push up the middle, rolled right and passed to Josh Barnes, but he was pushed out of bounds short of the marker at the 14.
"If we score right there, it's a different game," Taylor Lamb said. "For some reason we just didn't get it done when we had to all game."
Shirreffs was even better on the next possession, going 4-for-4 passing for 72 yards, including a 16-yarder to tight end Walter Chapeau on third-and-5 to the Calhoun 5. Two plays later, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Shirreffs bulled his way in for a 21-7 lead with just 59 seconds to play in the first half.
After two failed Calhoun series to open the second half, the Dragons appeared to be going for the kill after back-to-back Shirreffs completions moved the ball to midfield. Calhoun's Carter Edwards, though, made a leaping interception of a deep pass, and on the next play Lamb hit a streaking Curtis for a 75-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to seven.
When J.P. Parker caused and recovered a fumble after a completion at the Calhoun 37 moments later, the mostly quiet Calhoun side of the Georgia Dome erupted. They were quickly quieted when Lamb's pass tipped off his receiver's hands and into those of Micah Carpenter, who returned it to the Calhoun 16.
Three plays later, Shirreffs put the nail in Calhoun's coffin with another 1-yard touchdown run with 2:44 left in the third.
"We had some momentum there, but we gave it right back," Hal Lamb said. "We came a long way this year. We went 14-1 and not many people would have expected us to be 14-1 with 17 new starters, to be honest. But we've got a lot of these guys back, so we're excited about next year."
Jefferson's Shirreffs, who is being recruited by Ivy League schools, believes his team had an unseen edge, though he couldn't explain it.
"It's the Year of the Dragon, and some crazy things have happened this year," he said. "It's unbelievable. Losing wasn't an option and we really felt that today, and the moment our defense got the ball back after the turnover proved it.
"I can't describe the feeling. There is no better way to end my career."