Defense stands tall for Cavaliers
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
With time winding down in the third quarter and Callaway leading 15-3, it looked like Fitzgerald was about to go in for a much-needed touchdown.
After recovering a fumble, Fitzgerald connected for a 33-yard pass play to put the ball on the Callaway 7-yard line.
Two plays later, Fitzgerald had it third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, and a touchdown appeared imminent.
A Callaway defense that fights for every inch wasn’t about to just let Fitzgerald walk into the end zone, though.
After Fitzgerald was stopped on third down a few inches from the goal line, it went for it on fourth down.
Quarterback Rashad Davis was unable to handle the snap and he dropped the ball, and Callaway’s LaQuize Gilbert recovered the fumble to end the Fitzgerald threat.
That play helped Callaway prevail 22-17 and win the Class AA state championship.
While the play had no chance of success once Davis dropped the ball, Callaway defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard believes his players were in position to make a stop regardless.
“We made a couple of good plays there to get it to fourth down, and the kid fumbled, but Gilbert was running free on that play,” Hubbard said. “I don’t think he’s going to get in anyway, looking at the film. He broke through, and they were about to hit each other at the 1-yard line. He dropped the ball, and Gilbert just fell on it. We got
some good fortune, but I think even if he catches that snap, we’ve got a good shot to get him down.”
That goal-line stand was typical of a defense that made life difficult on opposing offenses all season, and throughout a championship playoff run.
In Tuesday’s game, as has been the case in each of the playoff games, Callaway did an outstanding job of creating turnovers.
In addition to the recovered fumble on the fourth-down play, Callaway got two interceptions from Cameron Smith, and Jalin Shephard had an interception on the final play of the game at the 5-yard line.
Smith’s first interception came on the game’s opening possession.
After Fitzgerald drove to the Callaway 7-yard line, Smith made an interception in the end zone to end that threat.
Smith’s second interception came with less than four minutes remaining in the game with Fitzgerald inside of the Callaway 40-yard line.
Shephard’s interception ended the game.
Fitzgerald had the ball on the Callaway 40-yard line, and Shephard caught the ball at the 5-yard line as time expired.
“That’s what we always say. Make them play another play,” Hubbard said. “Fight like crazy to get them down and make them play another play, because we know we’ve got some big-play guys that can take the ball away from people, and if we can keep making them play another play, we feel like we’ve got another chance. That’s kind of what happened for us. We had some really big turnovers that we got, starting with the one down there on the goal line when Cam made a good read and intercepted a pass. And then Cam got another one later, and Jalin ended it. I thought that was the big thing were the take-aways.”
Senior linebacker LaQuize Gilbert, as has been the case throughout the season, led the defensive effort with 12 tackles, and he had more than 60 tackles in the four playoff games combined.
Fellow senior linebacker Austin Thomas had six tackles, and Shephard and Osiris Rivas combined for 10 tackles in the secondary.
Shephard, who is also a big-play receiver and Callaway’s punter, had a tackle in the end zone in the first quarter for a safety.
Callaway’s defensive line, a strength all season, had another strong performance against Fitzgerald.
“The biggest thing, our defensive-line depth was so big, because we could rotate guys in and out of there,” Hubbard said. “We played a lot of guys, and we were pretty fresh at the end of the game as well.”
Fitzgerald, which relies on its running game to succeed, barely had 100 yards on the ground, and that was a testament to the job done by the defensive linemen and everyone on that side of the ball.
“Going in, we knew that Fitzgerald would be in their heavy packages and they would run the ball at us,” Hubbard said. “I think they felt like they could do that going in. We had to make sure they couldn’t do that and try to get them into their spread. We felt like, if we could get them into their spread, their quarterback would give us some opportunities to make some plays on the ball. So we kind of got them out of that and get them into some stuff they didn’t really want to. They pulled out every trick play they had, and I thought we did a good job on those.”
The defense was a strength all season, and in addition to the athletic ability the players possess, Hubbard appreciates their ability to absorb whatever they were taught.
“We don’t give them enough credit for their intelligence,” Hubbard said. “We were able to do more this year than we’ve ever been able to do. A lot of it goes to having veteran guys in the secondary. You can bring pressure from different places, and they can pick it up in the secondary. But, this group allowed us as a coaching staff to do some things we haven’t been able to do because of their intelligence.”
It was also a defense, according to senior defensive lineman Caden Prather, filled with players who only cared about what would make the team better.
“We play together,” Prather said. “Our defense is special. We have a bond. We’re not selfish at all. We’re selfless. We come out here and do what our job is. Nobody cares about the individual. It’s the team effort.”
In the playoffs, Callaway’s defense faced some immense challenges.
Lovett, Thomasville, Rabun County and Fitzgerald all had high-powered offenses, and it was a different kind of challenge each week.
“You’re able to beat the fourth, third, second and first-ranked teams in the state, and all of them have prolific offenses, and they all do it in a different way,” Hubbard said. That goes back to them being able to go from one game plan to another one the next week. You just adjust, and not skip a beat.”
Callaway’s defense gave up a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns against Fitzgerald, but it made plays when it had to, with Smith and Shephard both intercepting passes late in the game.
On the game’s final play, Callaway got pressure on Fitzgerald quarterback Rashad Davis, who was unable to get the ball into the end zone.
Moments before that play, the Cavaliers thought the game was over when they made a stop, but there was still one second on the clock after the Fitzgerald player got a first down.
Callaway’s players started to celebrate prematurely, and that led to a penalty that put the ball on the 40-yard line.
“You think the game is over, and the kids take their helmet off and we get a 15-yard penalty to about the position where you figure they can throw it to the end zone,” Hubbard said. “We ended up getting some pressure on him, and he wasn’t able to follow through with the throw.”
In the end, Callaway’s defense did everything necessary to help secure the long-awaited state title.
“We know we’re the best defense, the best overall team in Class AA,” linebacker LaQuize Gilbert said. “We know if we got it going, and kept it going, we’d come out with the W.”