LAGRANGE – The outcome was still in doubt.
As the Hart County Bulldogs got the ball early in the fourth quarter of Friday’s state-playoff game at Callaway Stadium, they had given up 14 straight points to watch a three-point deficit grow to 17, but they were still in it.
Hart County is an explosive team with the ability to strike quickly, as it showed by scoring a touchdown 30 seconds into the game.
Any chance Hart County had of getting back into the game was about to get snuffed out, though.
Callaway linebacker Dre Martin broke through the line of scrimmage and got to quarterback Robert Allen, and he stripped the ball loose.
Callaway defensive lineman JT Wortham saw the ball, and he picked it up and had an unobstructed path to the end zone, and he ended up scoring a defensive touchdown.
That touchdown gave the Cavaliers (10-1) a 38-14 lead, and they went on to win 38-20 to advance to the second round of the Class AAA playoffs.
Callaway will host Westminster on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Against Hart County, it was a stellar outing for the Callaway defense, which stymied a Hart County offense that had scored 38 or more points in six of its previous 11 games.
The Bulldogs went 80 yards in just two plays to start the game, and it looked like they were going to maintain that prolific scoring pace.
There were precious few offensive highlights for Hart County the rest of the night, though.
Hart County’s only other offensive touchdown came in the third quarter, and that was set up by a Callaway fumble deep in its own territory.
The Bulldogs got the ball at the Cavaliers’ 33-yard line, and they managed to score when Trey Clark made a difficult catch in the end zone.
Hart County’s final touchdown came on a fumble return in the fourth quarter.
“I felt like our defense played an unbelievable game, and were physical and fast, and kept putting our offense in good situations, and we were able to put some points on the board,” Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins said.
On the game’s first offensive play, Hart County wide receiver Zach Maldonado took a handoff from Allen, and he completed a 46-yard pass to Dre Sadler.
On the next play, Clark scored on a 14-yard run, and Hart County led 7-0 just 30 seconds into the game.
Wortham, a senior who has been in plenty of big games over the years, said no one was worried.
“At the beginning of the game, you know some type of adversity is going to happen,” Wortham said. “You have to bounce back, and the defense did.”
The Cavaliers came right back and tied it on a 2-yard run by quarterback Dylan Johnson that capped an 80-yard drive.
On Hart County’s second possession, defensive lineman Keegan Ramsey picked off a ball that was tipped, and Callaway was in great position at the 25-yard line.
That interception led to a 23-yard field goal by Noah Stephens, and the Cavaliers had a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
For the remainder of the first half, Hart County’s only first down after the opening possession came on a Callaway penalty.
In the second half, Hart County’s first possession ended when Callaway’s Braylon Sanders picked off a pass.
The Bulldogs did manage to score the second time they got the ball in the second half after recovering a fumble, but they did basically nothing offensively after that.
Allen, Hart County’s talented quarterback, was under assault the whole night, and that pressure led to Wortham’s touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Wortham picked the ball up inside the 30-yard line, and he had no doubt he was going to make it to the end zone.
“I knew I was going to score,” Wortham said. “I had a whole bunch of room.”
It was a balanced defensive effort for Callaway.
Senior linebacker Javoski Leverette had eight tackles, and defensive back Tyrek Frazier had five tackles.
Wortham had five tackles, including three tackles for loss with two sacks, to go along with his touchdown.
Even when he wasn’t making tackles, Wortham was wreaking havoc in the Hart County backfield.
“He just keeps bringing pressure on the quarterback, and on the run,” Wiggins said of Wortham.
Martin had four tackles, including two for loss with a sack, and he had the forced fumble that led to Wortham’s touchdown.
Callaway’s defensive front line of Wortham, Ramsey, Rashawn Lovelace, Keegan Woods and a handful of others, including offensive lineman Cortney Laye, dominated the line of scrimmage.
The linebackers, featuring Martin, Leverette, Jabreel Jackson and Devin Brock had a big night as well, as did Frazier, Courtney Williams, Dominic Copeland, Kobe Jackson and Sanders in the defensive backfield.
It was a productive night for Callaway’s special-teams units as well.
Stephens made a 23-yard field goal and five extra points, and Johnson did a nice job punting the ball to help Callaway control field position.
In the return game, Martin handled the punt returns, and he excelled in that role.
Martin had one long punt return to the Hart County 23-yard line, and another one to the Callaway 45-yard line that led to a touchdown.
Martin handled all of the returns cleanly.
“To be able to field the ball everytime, and not let it bounce and roll another 15, 20 yards, is so important, and Dre Martin did a great job with that,” Wiggins said.
One of the biggest plays of the game came in the second half after Hart County scored to get within three.
On the ensuing kickoff, Frazier had a return all the way to the Hart County 26-yard line.
Four plays later, Callaway scored a touchdown to reclaim momentum.
“Tyrek, he saw an open space, and he made a play,” Wiggins said. “He’s done that for us a lot of times.”
Callaway’s offense, not surprisingly, was led by running back Cedric Maynard, who had 144 hard-earned yards on 33 carries against a Hart County defense that featured a big and powerful defensive line.
Maynard had a 4-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, and he had a 63-yard scoring run in the third quarter called back because of a penalty.
It was tough going for Maynard, who didn’t have as many explosive plays as usual, but he still found a way to lead the offense.
Maynard is well-known for his ability to leave defenders behind on the way to long touchdown runs, but as he showed against Hart County, he can get the tough yards as well.
“I was getting stopped, but I told myself I’ve got to push it and work hard,” Maynard said. “And I did.”
For the season, Maynard has 2,301 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Johnson, the Callaway quarterback who had to leave the game late in the second quarter with a hand injury, led his team on an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive after Hart County had scored to take a 7-0 lead.
Johnson completed a 14-yard pass to Joe Brown on the drive, and he also connected with Braylon Sanders for a 61-yard completion to the Hart County 3-yard line.
Sanders was making his return to the lineup after sitting out more than a month with a knee injury.
Sanders began the season as Callaway’s quarterback, and he was injured in the region opener against Cedartown on Oct. 8.
Sanders started last week’s game at wide receiver, but he ended up going to quarterback late in the first half following Johnson’s injury.
Callaway took its first lead midway through the first quarter on a field goal by Stephens.
The Cavaliers then drove 50 yards for their second touchdown.
The big play on the drive was a 14-yard completion from Johnson to Martin on fourth down, and Johnson then had a 13-yard run to the Hart County 9-yard line.
Three plays later, Maynard’s 4-yard touchdown run gave Callaway a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter, and that was the score at the half.
In the second half, Callaway’s offense sputtered a little bit early.
The Cavaliers’ first two possessions in the third quarter ended with an interception and a fumble.
After Hart County scored a touchdown following the fumble to close the gap to three, Callaway reclaimed control.
After Frazier’s long kickoff return, fullback Brandon Boddie scored four plays later on a 13-yard run when he bulled over a host of would-be tacklers.
Boddie, who is hard to bring down when he gets going, said the physical practices help him on game nights.
“I practice taking hits,” Boddie said. “I thank the scout-team defense for giving me great looks in practice.”
Early in the fourth quarter, Frazier gave the Cavaliers’ their final offensive touchdown on a 12-yard run.
Frazier has done an oustanding job as Callaway’s number two running back behind Maynard, and he has been a defensive stalwart from his defensive-back position.
“He’s a kid that has played a lot on defense, and has played physical, but he’s also come in spelled Cedric a lot throughout the year and has meant a lot to us,” Wiggins said.
It was a complete effort for the Cavaliers, who have won 10 consecutive games and are now one win away from a trip to the quarterfinals.
“They get out and they bust their butt every day, and when the get to the field, it’s kind of like pay day,” Wiggins said. “Every week we say leave it on the field. Everything you’ve worked for, everything you’ve done, let’s leave everything we.ve got right here tonight. If you do that, we’ll be successful regardless. I feel like our kids are doing a great job with that. They’re believing in each other, and it’s a tight group.”
each Kevin Eckleberry at (706) 884-7311 or on Twitter @lagrangesports