Cavaliers get defensive
Published 6:23 pm Monday, December 2, 2019
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
On the game’s opening possession, Douglass-Atlanta made it look easy.
The Astros got the ball at their own 40-yard line on their first possession, and they needed less than four minutes to put the ball in the end zone and take the early lead.
It was not an ideal way for Callaway’s defense, which gave up 31 points the previous week against Fitzgerald, to start the game.
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, the defense stiffened from there, holding the Astros’ offense to only one touchdown the remainder of the game.
Callaway won 41-20 to advance to the Class AA semifinals, and the defense did its part, particularly in the second half when it held Douglass-Atlanta without a point.
In the third quarter, with the offense scuffling a bit, the defense didn’t give up anything as Callaway maintained its 27-20 lead.
The defense also came up big early in the game.
Callaway’s first three offensive plays resulted in turnovers, but Douglass-Atlanta didn’t get any offensive points as a result of those miscues.
Douglass-Atlanta did return a fumble for a touchdown in the first quarter to take a 14-0 lead, but the deficit could have been much greater if Callaway’s defense hadn’t been up to the challenge.
“In the first quarter when we turned it over a few times, we did a good job of keeping it close,” said Dusty Hubbard, Callaway’s defensive coordinator. “They went down and scored and made it 6-0, and we made two stops (after turnovers). They scooped and scored, but it was just 14-0.”
The Astros scored another offensive touchdown in the second quarter to take the lead, but they were held scoreless the rest of the way.
“We felt like we needed to play a little better than we did (against Fitzgerald),” Hubbard said. “We got on them, and they answered the bell. I’m really proud of them.”
Senior linebacker R.J. Williams, who missed time with an injury earlier in the season, had a big game for Callaway with 12 tackles, including two for loss.
Junior linebacker Charlie Dixon, who also plays running back, also had 12 tackles.
Another junior linebacker, Ladarius Williams, had nine tackles, and linebackers LaQuize Gilbert and Austin Thomas had solid games as well.
Among the defensive linemen, Trey Stephens got it done with six tackles, including one sack.
Callaway was short-handed on the defensive line with Anthony Elliott unable to go, but starters Stephens, Sam Williams, Jabari Smith and Keshawn Suggs did a terrific job up front.
Tate Johnson, Chancey Bradford and Nate Lee also provided some valuable contributions on the defensive line.
“Anthony couldn’t play tonight, so we had to have a lot more people step up,” Smith said.
It was, according to Hubbard, “all hands on deck.”
“We got some young kids in there,” Hubbard said. “Nate Lee played some. He hadn’t played much all year, and Bradford hadn’t played much all year.”
The player who arguably made the biggest impact on the game was junior defensive back Jalin Shephard.
Shephard had six tackles and an interception, and he also blocked a punt and returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the first half.
Shephard was also Callaway’s punter, and he pinned Douglass-Atlanta inside its own 20-yard line in the third quarter with a well-placed punt.
Jymere Jones and Osiris Rivas also got it done in the defensive secondary for Callaway.
In the first half, Callaway’s defensive players had a hard time getting the Douglass ball-carriers to the ground.
The Astros have been a prolific running team all season, so Hubbard knew it was going to be a challenge for his defense.
“They’ve got some tough guys to get on the ground,” Hubbard said. “We saw it on film. They’re tough.”
It was a different story in the second half.
Outside of a handful of first downs, the Astros didn’t do much when they had the ball, and they didn’t come close to scoring.
“All we had to do was flip the switch, and do what we know how to do, and play together,” Smith said.
Tate Johnson, an offensive lineman who was pressed into duty on the defensive line, gave Hubbard credit for helping the players get ready for the second half.
“Coach Hubbard is such a great coach,” Johnson said. “You go into halftime and make adjustments, and once those adjustments are made, then you have to execute, and I think we came out in the second half and executed the game plan, and it showed.”
Callaway had the lead at the half, and Hubbard’s message to the defensive players was simply to go out and throw a shutout in the final two quarters.
“We said look, it’s 27-20,” Hubbard said. “If they don’t score again, there’s no possible way they can win, and they kind of took that to heart.”
Callaway’s offense, after the rough start with the early turnovers, was as proficient as always.
Senior running back Cartavious “Tank” Bigsby had touchdown runs of 24, 10, five and one yard.
Callaway also showed off its big-play ability in the passing game, with Demetrius Coleman finding Jacob Freeman for an 88-yard touchdown shortly before the half.
That play put the Cavaliers on top 27-20, and they held the lead the rest of the way.
Callaway’s other touchdown, which was a massive momentum-turning play, came on a kickoff return by Shephard in the first quarter.
Douglass-Atlanta had a 14-0 lead when Shephard accepted a kickoff at the 30-yard line, and he went 70 yards for the touchdown to get Callaway on the scoreboard.
Early in the second quarter, Bigsby scored on a 24-yard run, and Blake Eubanks made the extra point to tie the score at 14-14.
After Douglass went back on top 20-14, Callaway scored touchdowns on back-to-back possessions to take the lead at the half.
Bigsby’s 5-yard touchdown run and Eubanks’ extra point gave Callaway a 21-20 lead with 6:46 left in the half.
The Astros made it inside the Cavaliers’ 10-yard line when they got the ball back, but they were stopped on a fourth-down play.
On the next play, Freeman’s 88-yard touchdown catch from Coleman capped the first-half scoring, giving Callaway a 27-20 lead.
Callaway’s offense was stymied in the third quarter, but the home team held onto the lead thanks to the effort of the defense.
In the fourth quarter, Bigsby had scoring runs of one yard and 10 yards as Callaway put it away to ensure its fourth trip to the semifinals since 2013.