Nick Simons/ Times-Georgian
MARIETTA — Down 28-7 at halftime on the road against fellow Region 7-AAAAA power Kell on Friday night, the Carrollton High School football team had its back against the wall as a second consecutive lopsided region loss seemed imminent.
Instead of packing it in, the Trojans stormed back in the second half, where a 26-yard Connor Smith-McCrum game-winning field goal as time expired sealed Carrollton's 45-42 comeback victory over the No. 10 Longhorns.
"That's Trojan football. That's it," Carrollton head coach Sean Calhoun said afterward. "I gotta thank our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for putting us through what we went through last week (versus Hiram). Everybody in this program had a gut check. There were reasons there to lay down, but our kids fought and that's what we're about."
Kell (4-4, 4-2) would take command of nearly the entire first half. Dynamic senior running back Josiah Futral got things going for the Longhorn offense when he broke off a 44-yard touchdown run to give them an early 7-0 advantage in the first quarter. This would eventually be followed by a two-yard touchdown run by Evan Conley and a 16-yard Conley to Michael Luckie touchdown pass to give the host squad a 21-0 lead in the second.
Avoiding an even larger deficit via a Kell missed field goal, Carrollton slowly started to tilt momentum in its favor. Powered by big runs from Jaylan Thomas and Kodee Brewer, the Trojans get on the board when sophomore quarterback Kashif Taylor hit senior tight end Tyler Harper for a nine-yard touchdown pass. On the very next Kell drive, defensive back Kenneth Towns jumped up and snagged his first of three interceptions of the day. After a Trojan and three-and-out, the sophomore Towns would grab yet another interception.
But disaster struck for the visitors right before the half as with less than a minute remaining, Kell safety Derrick Ward snared an interception and housed a 76-yard pick-six to give the Longhorns a commanding three touchdown halftime lead. Heading into the half, Calhoun noticed that even in the face of adversity, his team was already talking itself into coming back.
"I didn't have to say much. The kids were saying everything even as they were walking up to the locker room," Calhoun said. "We talked about on Sunday that it was going to be about the love that we have for each other that was going to get us through. A lot of people were ready to write us off, but we weren't. We knew what we're capable of."
And the Trojan offense showed that it was capable of by clawing back into the game. Carrollton opened the half with a a pair of 75 and 14-yard Jaylan Thomas touchdown runs to quickly make the score 28-21. Right after Kevin Swint and Martez Hudson sacked Conley on the following Kell drive to bring up second-and-24, Towns swooped in for his third interception of the night and returned the ball all the way down to the six-yard line. Two plays later, Taylor ran it in for a touchdown to tie the game at 28.
"The score is not indicative of how our defense played. They were phenomenal," Calhoun said. "I feel like we're getting better at getting those game-changing turnovers."
After another Kell three-and-out on the following drive, Taylor continued to spark the offense by driving the Trojans downfield and capping it with an eight-yard touchdown to Dalton Benefield to give them a 35-28 advantage, their first lead of the night. The Trojan head coach talked about Taylor stepping up big in the absence of injured starter Mark Wright Jr.
"He doesn't feel pressure," Calhoun said. "We talk about in the quarterback room that it's not pressure. It's expectations and how you handle it. He definitely prepared himself to come in and do what he did."
Kell would open the fourth quarter with a 32-yard touchdown pass from Conley to senior Blake Simpson to tie the game at 35. Orchestrating a near four-minute drive later in the quarter, Futral would punch his way into the end zone for his second touchdown to regain the lead for Kell.
With 1:23 left to go in the ballgame, the signal-caller Taylor would answer back with a 31-yard touchdown strike to Isaiah Lancaster to retie the game. Being able to successfully force a Kell three-and-out and get the ball back with 40 seconds left, the senior Thomas, who finished the game with 245 yards rushing, dashed for a critical 52-yard run down to the Longhorn five.
Kneeling and running the clock all the way down to one second before calling a timeout, the scene was set for the junior Smith-McCrum to knock in the go-ahead field goal with no time left on the clock to allow Carrollton to escape yet another wild region victory.
"We've talked about it all year that sooner or later, the kickers were going to win a game," Calhoun said. "Connor spoke to the team in our Friday morning meeting, so it was fitting that he kicked a game-winning field goal."
The victory keeps the Trojans in the running for the No. 2 seed in the region with a critical showdown versus Paulding County this Friday solidifying the spot.
"We control our own destiny, which is what we want," Calhoun said. "This win versus Kell was our first step to it and I can't be more proud of this bunch."