DALTON, Ga. - The final stats won't go down as a game to remember for Kaelen Riley, but the Calhoun High School junior first-time starting quarterback was all smiles Friday night as he exited venerable Harmon Field.
Riley and the Yellow Jackets overcame a nightmarish first half to score the game's final 21 points in a 21-14 win over Dalton. Calhoun (1-0) scored touchdowns on its first three second-half possessions, and a defense pushed on its heels early made the lead hold up with a late stand.
"I can't explain the first half, but I really think our defense kept us in the game until we got the offense untracked," said Calhoun coach Hal Lamb, whose team was held to 8 total yards in the first half with help from three center/quarterback issues. "We could have easily been down 28 or 35. We made some adjustments offensively and played a lot better in the second half."
Riley, who was minus-47 yards rushing in the first half as three errant snaps lost 54 yards, completed five of seven passes on an 88-yard drive to start the second half.
"We had some problems in the first half because the Dalton guys were yelling, 'Shift!' and my center thought it was me wanting the snap, but we got it together in the second half," Riley said. "This is a really good team we beat tonight, and we never could have pulled it out if not for the defense."
Dalton (1-1) made that defense look outmatched early, needing only five plays to take the opening drive 57 yards for a 7-0 lead, with senior quarterback Payton Veraldi hitting Peter Sigmon on a 44-yard catch-and-run touchdown. The first bad snap on Calhoun's second play pushed the Jackets back to the 13, and Riley's first pass was tipped and intercepted by Jordon McKinney. Three plays later, Tyler Noland scored from 6 yards out for a stunning 14-0 lead.
That advantage could have been larger, but the final three Catamount spossessions of the half ended without points at the Calhoun 17 on a fake field goal, the 23 on an interception by Ethan Woodard and the 15 on Chazz Moss's blocked field goal. Then Lamb tried to settle his troops in the locker room.
"I told them, regardless of whether we came back to win the game, that the second half would determine what kind of team we have," he said. "The cream rises to the top and we found a way to win it. That drive to start the second half was critical. We felt we could run the ball at them, and Kaelen settled down a bit."
The drive, which was aided by a third-down pass-interference call on Dalton, was kept alive on a fourth-and-9 completion to Carson Brown to the Catamounts' 18, and three plays later senior Cole Jackson scored from 7 yards. A quick three-and-out and a poor punt set up Calhoun at its own 48, and after a 33-yard screen pass to Brown and Jackson's 28-yard run, Jackson scored the tying touchdown on a 4-yard scamper.
Austin Bennett gave the ball right back to the Jackets at the Dalton 30 with a tipped interception, and five plays later sophomore Olico Dennis put Calhoun ahead with an 8-yard run. Dalton put together one last drive, starting at its own 6 and moving, behind the the poised Veraldi, to the Calhoun 25 with just over a minute left. However, Bennett sniffed out a screen pass on third down and threw Tyric McGowan for a 6-yard loss, and on fourth down Baylon Spector tipped away a pass inside the 10 to end the threat.
Jackson topped Calhoun with 52 yards rushing, and McGowan led Dalton with 55 yards.
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