There have been times this football season when the once-vaunted Calhoun High School defense has looked rather ordinary.
While the Yellow Jackets' offense had put up 471 points in 12 games entering this week's GHSA Class AAAAA quarterfinal matchup at Clarke Central, the defense had been pushed around in two playoff wins to the tune of 63 points allowed.
That turned around Friday night as Calhoun used two first-half stands inside the 10-yard line to preserve an early lead and rolled to a 31-7 win in Athens. The Yellow Jackets (11-2) will host Region 7 rival Blessed Trinity (9-4) — a 49-7 winner against Villa Rica in the quarterfinals — in a semifinal next week.
Calhoun defeated Blessed Trinity 32-27 in early October in Roswell.
"This right here is what it's all about," Calhoun coach Clay Stephenson gushed after Friday's win. "Clarke Central has a great team, but I am proud of the fight. Stopping them two times inside the 5 was the key to the game, no doubt."
While the defense may have stolen the show in the win at Clarke Central (10-3), the Calhoun offense was its usual self — and a future Athens resident set the tone. The first points of the night were scored when receiver Cole Speer, who committed to the University of Georgia shortly before the season, took an end-around run 55 yards to the end zone on the game's fourth play.
After the Gladiators' long opening drive ended with quarterback Lucian Anderson scoring on a 7-yard keeper, Speer struck again, this time leaping to grab a Christian Lewis pass at the 7 against a defender who had good position before taking it into the end zone to complete a 49-yard scoring play and put the Jackets back on top.
"Really, it was nothing fancy," Stephenson said about the early offensive action. "You get it to your playmakers and let them go."
That strategy, however, was also working for Clarke Central, which again drove down the field behind running back Jadayvion Adkins for first-and-goal at the 4. Calhoun's defense, though, stood tall and on fourth-and-goal from the 2 as Christian Gregory hit running back Kendrick Curry for a 3-yard loss.
Later in the half — after a Calhoun drive that ended with an interception in the end zone — the Gladiators drove to the 5, but again their possession stalled and this time a short field-goal attempt was blocked by Dustin Kerns.
That defensive momentum carried over to the second half, when the Jackets allowed 15 total yards. The offense, meanwhile, scored on three consecutive possessions: a short field goal, a 24-yard touchdown pass from Lewis to Quin Smith and a Caden Williams 7-yard run in the final two minutes.
Lewis was 11-for-14 passing for 177 yards, with Williams getting 126 yards on 24 carries and Speer compiling 154 total yards. Senior linebacker Christopher Lewis, Christian's twin brother, had three tackles for loss and forced a fumble on a second-half drive that killed the Gladiators' last scoring opportunity.