The Callaway Cavaliers scored the final three times they touched the ball to beat LaGrange on opening night.
The Cavaliers were trailing 14-0 in the fourth quarter, but they scored twice to tie it at the end of regulation, and they added another touchdown in overtime to win 20-14.
The performance of the offense was a big part of the story.
The Cavaliers would not have been able to win the game if not for some huge plays by the defense, though.
A defense that included six new starters and a bunch of other first-time contributors stood tall and helped the Cavaliers get a big season-opening win.
In the fourth quarter, the defense forced a key fumble that led to the game-tying drive.
In overtime, the Cavaliers stopped the Grangers on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
It wasn’t a flawless performance, but defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard felt the unit made major strides.
“There are some things we definitely have to get better at, but we were pretty pleased,” Hubbard said. “It’ll take awhile for us to get there totally, but with every game and every practice, those guys are getting better and better. They’ll get more familiar with what we’re doing.”
A stingy defense was a key reason the Cavaliers went 12-2 a year ago and made it to the state semifinals.
Many of the players who were a part of that strong defense graduated, including linebacker KeShun Freeman, the leading tackler the past two years.
Nearly all of the starting defensive linemen also graduated, as did some key players at other positions.
The Grangers moved the ball well with more than 200 rushing yards, and they scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives in the second half to take the 14-0 lead.
When they needed to, though, the Cavaliers got it done on defense.
The defense forced a three-and-out midway through the fourth quarter that led to the Cavaliers’ first touchdown.
It looked like the Grangers were on the verge of winning the game after quarterback Amad Ogletree took off on a 44-yard run to the Callaway 20-yard line with minutes left in the game.
On a first-down play, though, free safety Aaron Clausell forced a fumble, and the Cavaliers recovered the ball and drove for the tying score.
“He came up and made a great hit, put his hat right on the ball,” Hubbard said. “It seemed like it sat there for two days before somebody picked it up.”
The play was part of a big night for Clausell, who led the team with 14 tackles.
Clausell was a linebacker last season, and he has moved to safety this year.
“We felt like he played really well,” Hubbard said. “That was his first game at free safety, and we thought he did a heck of a job.”
After the Cavaliers tied the game with 21 seconds left, it was on to overtime.
That’s when Callaway’s defense came through again.
LaGrange got the ball first in overtime, and it found itself facing a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
Mon Denson, LaGrange’s bruising running back, got the ball, and he was stopped short of the goal line.
Callaway scored a touchdown on its overtime possession to win the game.
“We always work a lot of goal-line stuff,” Hubbard said. “We preach to them low man wins. Our d-line just did a great job cutting their offensive linemen down. He really didn’t have anywhere to go. And our linebackers just kind of spilled over the top and stopped his momentum.”
The position that was hit the hardest by graduation was the defensive line, and those players were going up against a strong LaGrange High offensive line, as well as a running back in Denson who is tough to bring down.
The defensive linemen, who are coached by Jason Sherrer, held their own.
The group includes one player, Lorenzo Patterson, who started last season.
“The big back they have, the hard part with him is getting him to the ground, and I thought we did a pretty good job of that,” Hubbard said. “Not great, but not bad.”
Callaway ended up using 10 players on the defensive line.
“I felt like those guys played well. They held their own,” Hubbard said. “We had Keegan Woods, a sophomore, he went in there and played about 30 plays. And he really held his own. We felt like he played a really good game. We had some other guys in the interior line that were down the line on the depth chart that played more than we expected.”
Among the defensive linemen used was Devin Powell, who Hubbard said came up with some big plays late.
“We felt like Devin Powell played really well in overtime,” Hubbard said. “He got some penetration on some plays that really helped us.”
One of the defensive linemen, Cortney Laye, showed off his good hands when he picked off a pass late in the first half.
Hubbard said the Cavaliers also ended up using five players at linebacker, including three sophomores.
Two of the starters, Eddie Culpepper and LaBronze Zelaya, needed some time off during the game.
Culpepper is a running back who carried the ball a lot, and Zelaya was injured.
“Eddie was a little gassed, and LaBronze got a little banged up early on, so all of those guys got in there,” Hubbard said. “There’s some things they have to get better at, but for the most part they held their own.”
The secondary, which figures to be a strength of the defense with Terry Godwin and Michael Moss leading the way, didn’t have to do much in pass coverage since the Grangers only threw it a few times.
Overall, Hubbard felt it was a positive first step for the defense.
“By the end of the year hopefully we’ll be back to the kind of defense we were at the end of last year,” Hubbard said.