It wasn't pretty or without controversy, but the Calhoun Yellow Jackets beat the Peach County Trojans 10-6 in the Class AAA state championship on Friday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, capturing their third state title since 2011.
The Yellow Jackets (14-1) held a Trojans (13-2) offense averaging 45.7 points a game scoreless, forcing three turnovers that led to all of their points. Brannon Spector's 45-yard interception return for Calhoun in the second quarter was the game's lone touchdown.
With 23 seconds remaining in the first half, Spector stepped in front of Antonio Gilbert's short pass and ran down the open field. Gilbert met him near the sideline around the 10-yard line, but Spector cut back toward the middle of the field to avoid the tackle.
He then dove into the end zone, giving Calhoun a 7-0 lead.
"It's a dream come true to score in the state championship," said Spector, a Clemson commit for the class of 2019. "That's every player's dream."
Calhoun's Elmer Gutierrez led off the second half with a pooch kickoff that no one on Peach County covered. Calhoun's Jake Morrow swooped in to recover the kick off a bounce to give the Yellow Jackets possession. Seven plays later, Gutierrez kicked a 34-yard field goal for the last points Calhoun would score.
The Trojans' offense struggled all game and Gilbert, who came in with just one interception to 23 touchdowns, threw two interceptions in the first half. Stadium replays showed his first interception hit the ground for what should have been ruled an incomplete pass, however.
Peach County's defense managed to keep the game close by allowing Calhoun just 158 yards of offense for the game.
In the fourth quarter, Mitchell Fineran kicked field goals of 50 and 37 yards to bring Peach County to within 10-6 with 5:52 remaining. Fineran's second field goal was set up by Jaquez Jackson's forced fumble, which gave the Trojans the ball on the Calhoun 24.
The Trojans forced a three-and-out on Calhoun's next drive and then used six plays to move the ball 33 yards to the Calhoun 21. That's when, on fourth-and-8 with 3:33 remaining, controversy set it.
Peach County's Noah Whittington caught Gilbert's pass at the 5-yard line, took at least two full steps and dove toward the end zone, spreading his arm with the ball across the goal line. His arm and the ball landed in the end zone, with the ball coming out after what should have been the go-ahead touchdown.
Instead, the pass was ruled incomplete and Peach County turned the ball over on downs in what will be talked about as one of the most controversial calls in GHSA state title game history.
"That's the worst call I've ever seen," said Trojans coach Chad Campbell, who in his 11th season at Peach County was seeking his second state title for the program. "To take the game away from the kids like that...who knows, maybe (the Yellow Jackets) come back and score. But you don't...I better not say anything else."
The Trojans would force another three-and-out and take over on their own 42 with 1:31 remaining. Gilbert was sacked by Brice Craig for a 15-yard loss on the first play from scrimmage. Three plays later, Gilbert's pass to Trevon Woolfork fell incomplete for another turnover on downs — this with 9 seconds left, effectively ending the game.
The Yellow Jackets defense finished with five sacks for a loss of 33 yards — Bailey Lester had 2.5 sacks — and limited Peach County to just 170 yards of offense.
"Our defense has been really strong and especially in the playoffs," said Yellow Jackets coach Hal Lamb, who is in his 19th season at Calhoun and has guided the program to all but one of its state titles. "They shut down a very good Cedar Grove team last week and an unbelievable Peach County team tonight."
Peach County 0 0 0 6 - 6
Calhoun 0 7 3 0 - 10
C - Brannon Spector 45 INT return (Elmer Gutierrez kick)
C - Gutierrez 34 FG
P - Mitchell Fineran 50 FG
P - Fineran 37 FG