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McCallie's James Howard (20) sacks MBA's Marcel Reed during the Division II-AAA BlueCross Bowl on Thursday night at Tennessee Tech's Tucker Stadium. Howard had two of the Blue Tornado's nine sacks that set a TSSAA record for a state title game and helped McCallie beat the Big Red 28-7. /Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — Going into Thursday night's BlueCross Bowl Division II-AAA state championship game, most of the attention had been given to the McCallie offense — which was averaging 36 points per game — and the Montgomery Bell Academy defense, which hadn't allowed more than 14 points in a game as the Big Red won seven of their previous eight.

By the end of the game, however, it was McCallie's defense that had stolen the spotlight and led the way for the Blue Tornado to win the program's second state title with a convincing 28-7 victory at Tennessee Tech University.

McCallie (11-2) set a record for a TSSAA title game with nine sacks — 2.5 by Aaron Crowder and two each by Jay Hardy, James Howard and Adam Smith — and totaled 12 tackles for loss, holding MBA (8-5) to single-digit scoring for just the third time this year.

"We played better than I thought we would, better than we had recently," McCallie coach Ralph Potter said. "We were really good up front, but our secondary really stepped up and did a great job. Some of those sacks were because of the coverage we had on their receivers downfield.

"We had one busted assignment in coverage all night, but other than that we were stone solid."

The one defensive breakdown allowed MBA to score its touchdown, an 81-yard pass that tied the game at 7 late in the first half. Aside from that play, however, the Big Red managed just 159 total yards on 49 snaps — an average of 3 yards per play — including 42 yards on 30 rushes.

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McCallie's Thompson Byrd makes a catch against MBA in the Division II-AAA BlueCross Bowl on Thursday night in Cookeville, Tenn. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

McCallie senior cornerback Thompson Byrd had given his team the early lead when he stepped in front of a Marcel Reed pass near the visitors' sideline and returned the interception 32 yards for a touchdown late in the first quarter.

"All week we worked on knowing our keys," said Byrd, who finished the season with six interceptions. "I knew when he takes a three-step drop and doesn't fake the handoff it's almost always a quick out pass, so I just sat on that route, and when I saw him turn to throw, I broke on the ball and just tried to make a play.

"Our defensive front did a great job putting pressure on them, and that's where it all started for us. Everybody did their job."

With the Blue Tornado nursing a seven-point lead, MBA opened the second half with an impressive drive, covering 59 yards in six plays to reach McCallie's 22. That was as far as the Big Red advanced as defensive lineman Howard sacked Reed twice in the next three plays, pushing the offense back 14 yards to end the threat.

McCallie's offense seized momentum from there, putting together a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped by quarterback DeAngelo Hardy's 3-yard run for a 14-point lead with less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter.

After allowing one more first down, the Blue Tornado sacked Reed and forced a punt, setting up McCallie's offense at the MBA 49. Five plays later, Hardy scored again to seal the victory that snapped a 14-game losing streak to the Big Red and marked the first time since 2009 a team not from Nashville won the championship in the state's largest private school classification.

"I'm so happy for our kids," Potter said. "You like to tell them you're the same people whether you win or lose, but the fact is when you win it you have a greater legacy and it stays with you."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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