Corey Cusick/ Times-Georgian
Postseason football is a completely different animal where anything and everything can happen — and Game 11 served as the perfect example of that inside the chilly confines of Grisham Stadium on Friday night.
The Carrollton High School football team survived a wild affair against Clarke Central in the opening round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs, pulling away for a 35-16 victory behind several key special teams plays and four consecutive interceptions on the final four drives of the evening.
And when the dust finally settled following three hours of action, all that mattered was the second-seeded Trojans (9-2) were moving on to the second round, where they'll face top-seeded Arabia Mountain (9-2) at a venue to be determined next week.
From there, though, Carrollton delivered the KO with a Kashif Taylor touchdown run and back-to-back Jaylan Thomas touchdowns to go along with interceptions by Kenneth Towns, Jacob Cotton, E.J. Pride and Jeremiah Pierce, respectively, on the final four Clarke Central possessions to seal the deal.
"This is the playoffs and every team is here because they deserve it. They are very deserving. That is a good football team. I've got to thank our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for giving us this ability and such a great evening to come out and play," Calhoun said. "I'm just so proud of our kids. We fought, we jumped on them. They responded and we responded. I can't be more proud of how tough and how resilient our kids are."
Special teams defined the first half and it proved to be a case of the good, the bad and the ugly.
Both teams made key plays — and mistakes — on special teams, swinging the momentum from one sideline to the other literally in a matter of seconds during the opening 24 minutes.
Carrollton jumped out to a 16-0 advantage, taking a 3-0 edge on a 24-yard Connor Smith-McCrum field goal. On the second Clarke Central possession after the first one nearly ended in a blocked punt, the Gladiator long snapper sailed the ball over his punter's head, resulting in a safety and 5-0 Trojan lead with four minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Carrollton found the end zone following the safety on an ankle-breaking run by Thomas that netted 33 yards and the two-point pass from Taylor to Tyler Harper stretched the score to 13-0 three seconds into the second quarter.
After a near miss and a safety, the Trojans would block the third punt attempt of the game by the Gladiators as Reid Dedman got his paws on the ball and Ricky Marenco scooped it up and returned it to the 14-yard line, setting up a 27-yard Smith-McCrum field goal and 16-0 lead.
But just as quickly as Carrollton gained the momentum, the visitors took it right back — once again with special teams coming into play.
Following three straight three-and-outs by Clarke Central to start the game, Gladiator quarterback Jack Mangel engineered the first positive drive of the night and hit paydirt on an 11-yard strike to Jarous Mack at the 8:24 mark of the second quarter, capping off a 12-play, 80-yard drive.
The Trojans fumbled the ensuing kickoff at their own 12-yard line, leading to a five-yard Mangel touchdown run two plays later.
And just like that, it was a three-point game all of a sudden.
Neither team would score the rest of the half, as Carrollton was stopped on a fake punt near midfield and Clarke Central missed a 37-yard field goal attempt.
The Gladiators took the opening possession of the second half and marched 76 yards on 16 plays and tied the game at 16-all on a 21-yard field goal by William Downs after running 6:48 off the clock on the drive.
That set up the drive of the night for Carrollton, which overcame poor field position starting at its own 6-yard line and escaping disaster when Taylor was nearly sacked in his own end zone. The sophomore signal-caller's pass attempt that he was able to flip away under heavy pressure was ruled incomplete as the Gladiator sideline argued it was a fumble.
The Trojans proceeded to move the chains and answer Clarke Central's score with a 94-yard drive that Taylor finished with a four-yard touchdown run to put Carrollton back on top for good at 23-16 with 3:08 left in the third quarter.
The Trojan special teams unit and defense dominated the remaining 15 minutes, as Dedman blocked his second punt of the evening, leading to a 43-yard run by Thomas on the very next play.
Dedman just missed a block on the first punt of the night, but he was certain to get the next two to highlight several key moments of special teams action for Carrollton.
"We put a lot of time into special teams. They put me and Andy (Smith) together on there like we did at Buford last year and I was able to get a couple," Dedman said.
With Clarke Central's long snapper being shaky at best, the Trojans had an idea from watching film that they would have some chances to exploit that department.
"Definitely. We watched the film and we were able to take advantage of their mistakes. Whether it was a high snap or whatever it was, we were able to take advantage of it," Dedman said.
The second blocked punt was followed by the interception party to close out another stellar showing by the Trojan defense.
"That was just incredible. Unheard of. We put so much time in and our coaches put so much time in working from Sunday to Thursday to show out on Friday," Dedman said.
Offensively, Thomas rushed for a game-high 120 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries, while Taylor completed 11-of-16 attempts for 115 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions.
Along with the four interceptions, the Trojan defense was powered by solid efforts from Chaz Chambliss with nine tackles and one sack, Kevin Swint with 5.5 tackles and 0.5 sack, Pierce with five tackles and the interception and Dedman with five tackles.
Now the Trojans will look to get back to the state quarterfinals upon hitting the road to visit the Rams, the league champion out of Region 5.
"It's the playoffs, so whether it's home or away, our mentality is still the same. We're going to enjoy the mess out of this one and come in Sunday and watch it and start working to be 1-0 next week," Calhoun said.