Callaway defense stands tall in win
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
The game was still in the balance.
Trailing by seven points, Elbert County marched down the field and was perhaps moments away from notching the game-tying touchdown against the Callaway Cavaliers in the fourth quarter of last week’s first-round playoff game at Callaway Stadium.
Jalin Shephard, a sophomore defensive back, wasn’t going to let that happen.
Elbert County quarterback D.J. Ardister floated the ball up in the left side of the end zone, and it was a one-on-one battle between Shephard and the receiver.
Shephard won that fight, snatching the ball away from the receiver for the critical interception.
Shephard wasn’t done.
Later in the fourth quarter, with the Cavaliers leading by seven, Shephard picked off another pass, and he raced all the way to the end zone. The touchdown was negated because of a penalty, but the interception stood.
Those interceptions helped Callaway preserve the 27-14 victory and advance to the second round of the playoffs to face defending state-champion Hapeville Charter.
Callaway’s defense, which has been an effective unit all season, had a solid night against an Elbert County team that came into the game averaging more than 30 points per game.
“I thought they played extremely hard,” Callaway defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard said. “There were a couple of times when they got behind us in the secondary and were able to make plays. We had some problems, but I felt like the biggest thing we did was we played hard, very hard.”
The biggest defensive play of the game was Shephard’s interception in the end zone.
After getting beat earlier in the game for a touchdown, Shephard was eager to make amends.
“I owed my team that,” Shephard said. “I gave up a touchdown, I gave up some passes, so I feel like that wasn’t just a pick for me, it was a pick for them.”
While Shepard’s interceptions helped the Cavaliers secure the win, Hubbard felt the performance of the defensive line was a key as well. The defensive linemen made life uncomfortable for Elbert County’s quarterback while also mostly shutting down the running game.
“Every one of them registered a tackle for loss,” Hubbard said. “I think we had five sacks for the game. It was a lot of pressure. Those guys were in the backfield all night. And we virtually shut down their running game. I think they ended up with 60 or 70 yards rushing, so we made them one-dimensional. Going in, that was part of what we were trying to do. We’ve got to do a better job of defending the pass, but if we can make a team one-dimensional, you’ve got a good shot.”
Defensive lineman Tre Heard had eight tackles, including three sacks, and Tyrique Andrews also had eight tackles, including two for loss with 1.5 sacks.
Senior linebacker Tely Fanning also had a big night with eight tackles, including two for loss with a sack.
Fanning said he gained some inspiration by watching highlights of one of the game’s all-time great linebackers.
“I watched Ray Lewis highlights yesterday,” Fanning said after Friday’s game. “I tried to play like him.”
Fanning and Callaway’s entire defense will be put to the test against a high-powered Hapeville Charter offense.
The Hornets are scoring close to 40 points per game, and it’s a big-play offense.
Leading the way is quarterback Jeremy Stephens, who completed 10-of-14 passes for 163 yards with a touchdown during a 33-3 win over Heard County early in the season.
Junior Marcus Carroll, who had 176 yards on 15 carries during an early-season win over River Ridge, is Hapeville Charter’s top rusher.
The Hornets have numerous other players capable of making big plays on offense, and leading the way is an imposing offensive line.
“I think one of our biggest tests is this week,” Hubbard said. “They just have so many ways that they can go beat you. They’ve got a big O-line, so they can run it. Then they’ve got skill kids outside. So, you’ve got to be able to defend the whole field against those guys.”
Hubbard added that “our whole game plan going on is to keep them in front of us, and if they score, make it be 10, 12-play drives. They have so many guys that are capable of big plays.”
No matter the down and distance, Hubbard said the defense can’t let up.
“The have so much big-play ability, that even when you get them in third-and-long, you still have to focus,” Hubbard said.
If the Cavaliers can take the ball away from the Hornets, something they were able to do a week ago, their chances of winning would be greatly enhanced.
“From a defensive standpoint, we’ve got to try to create a couple of turnovers,” Hubbard said. “If we can do that, you like your chances of winning.”
OF NOTE: For much more on the game, see Friday’s sports section.