The dreaded homecoming hex was in full effect at Grisham Stadium on Friday night.
For the better part of 36 minutes, at least.
Trailing by 11 entering the fourth quarter, the Carrollton High School football team rallied for a 24-21 region victory over East Paulding in a contest where it flirted with fire the entire evening, but managed to avoid getting burned when all was said and done.
Facing the perfect storm of coming off a top-five showdown against two-time defending state champion Rome last week and dealing with the distractions of homecoming this week, the fifth-ranked Trojans (4-1, 2-1 Region 7-AAAAA) exhibited little signs of life offensively through three quarters, while they also had a multitude of self-inflicted wounds that left the contest in doubt until the final minute when East Paulding missed a potential game-tying, 44-yard field goal.
Despite everything that did not go right for his squad, Carrollton head coach Sean Calhoun said it came down to one key element — finding a way.
"The good Lord promises us in the good book that you're going to go through joyful times and you're going to go through some trials and some tribulations. So I greatly appreciate him putting us through this. All praise goes to him. We're going to learn from this. He felt like (Friday) we needed to learn from it," Calhoun said. "But one of our main phrases is, 'Find a way.' And you know what? We found a way. I think in championship seasons or really, really good seasons, you win a tight game and you find a way."
Just one week after giving up 65 points to Rome, the Trojan defense turned the tide and was bailing the offense out against the Raiders (1-3, 1-1), not allowing a score all night until East Paulding senior standout Tyrell Robinson busted free for a 98-yard touchdown run with 30 seconds left in the third quarter to give the visitors a 21-10 lead.
Things began to look even more bleak on the ensuing Trojan possession that resulted in a quick punt, where junior quarterback Kashif Taylor had to be helped off the field after coming up short on the third-down play.
But the Trojan signal-caller didn't look too banged up after getting the ball right back following a three-and-out by the Raiders, housing a 71-yard run down the home sidelines on the first play of the possession to bring Carrollton within 21-16 after a failed two-point conversion at the 10:01 mark of the fourth quarter.
With the Trojan defense doing its part once again to get the ball back to the offense, Taylor made another huge play by connecting with Isaiah Lancaster on fourth-and-six from the East Paulding 38 with 5:37 to go, setting up a 16-yard Brandon Marenco touchdown run two plays later to put Carrollton back on top. Taylor also hit Miles McLendon on the two-point pass for the three-point margin.
Following two tremendous performances against Villa Rica and Rome, Taylor was a out of rhythm Friday through the first three quarters, throwing a pair of interceptions — one that was returned five yards for a touchdown — before his late-game heroics.
When it mattered most, though, the southpaw came through in the clutch, something Calhoun was proud to see after an otherwise tough outing.
"As a quarterback, you're going to have some up and down nights. But you've got to shake it off," Calhoun said. "The quarterback always gets too much praise and always gets too much blame. But in my opinion, that 70-yarder is what sparked us. That was the play that got us going."
The other major player offensively was senior tailback Trent Lane, who rushed for a game-high 180 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries behind some gritty work from the O-line, including a 21-yard score just before the half to put the Trojans up 10-7 at the break.
Even so, it was a first half that left much to be desired for Calhoun and the Trojan coaching staff. In his opinion, it had nothing to do with a hangover from the Rome game, more so the manner in which his players approached practice this week.
"I didn't really light into them (at halftime). The biggest thing, I don't think last week had anything to do with it. It had everything to do with the way we practiced this week. Practice was not very good. Our Wednesday practice was the worst I've been associated with in the three years I've been here," Calhoun said. "It correlates, and I hope they see that now. You can talk until you're blue in the face. They're young kids. We were their age once. But I hope they believe us now. We've got to practice better if we plan to go to Game 15. Again, even after saying all that, I'm so proud of them for finding a way."
Robinson, one of the top tailbacks in the state, finished with 161 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, but the majority of the damage came on the 98-yard run late in the third quarter.
Outside of that, Calhoun was encouraged with the way his defense bounced back from last week's tough outing at Rome. Senior safety Reid Dedman led the way with seven tackles, including one for a loss, while senior linebacker Jacob Cotton added five tackles and Zaylen Cook and R.J. Russell posted four takedowns apiece.
"Defense played outstanding. The defense played like we know they're capable of doing," Calhoun said. "Last week, that was not Trojan defense. Now, we don't need to give up that big play. We always talk about minimizing the big play, but they played really well. They were very physical and bowed their neck there at the end and forced that long field goal that wasn't even close. So I'm very proud of them, but we've got a lot of work to do, though."
Now at the midway mark of the regular season, the Trojans are dealing with the bumps and bruises from this physical stretch, as several guys were banged up by the end of Friday night. Calhoun said it's a matter of being smart this upcoming week before opening a two-game road trip with a jaunt to Cass (1-4, 0-3) on tap next.
"They've got to take care of their bodies. We'll do treatment. They'll go to the clinic in the morning and we'll take care of them," Calhoun said. "But I promise you they'll be 100 percent at 7:30 on Friday night up in Cass."