The Carrollton High School football team could do little wrong for the better part of 24 minutes on Friday night at the 2018 West Georgia Kickoff Classic.
Racing out to a 29-0 lead over East Coweta at University Stadium, the fifth-ranked Trojans appeared to be on their way to a potential running-clock situation in the second half and a lopsided Game 1 victory.
But just before both teams went into the locker room, the Indians found a spark courtesy of a 94-yard pass play to get on the scoreboard.
The big-play strike proved to be a sign of things to come over the final 24 minutes that left the contest in doubt until the very last possession.
In the end, though, Carrollton withstood a barrage of second-half fireworks from the Indians to survive a 32-27 nail-biter to open the 2018 campaign.
It marked the third consecutive season that Trojan head coach Sean Calhoun kicked off the year with a win on the University of West Georgia campus, although this one got a little too interesting for his liking in the final moments. But he was ultimately proud of his ballclub for prevailing and finding a way to put win No. 1 under wraps.
"First and foremost, I've got to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I mean, what a beautiful night. Just the weather, a beautiful venue, keeping both teams safe and competitive. This win, all glory goes to him," Calhoun said. "This win was for our baseball coach, coach (Ryan) Zaideman. A big shout-out to him and his support for us. He's fighting back to get back to 100 percent."
After East Coweta put itself in a similar situation last week at the Corky Kell Classic against fellow Region 7-AAAAA foe Kell, only to storm back in the fourth quarter and lose a 36-34 heartbreaker in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Calhoun had a feeling Carrollton's opponent wasn't just going to roll over and take it in Week 2.
"We knew they were going to go for four quarters. They did it last week. We let them hang around. And if you let a good team hang around, they're going to start knocking on that door and try to kick it down," Calhoun said. "But we found a way in the end, and that's what we talk about. That's what we did. I'm proud of them."
Outside of the 94-yard touchdown pass from East Coweta quarterback Nate Cronic to Brayden Carey with 1:04 to go in the second quarter, the Trojans (1-0) dominated all phases of the game in the first half.
The offense amassed 292 yards — 132 on the ground and 160 through the air — scoring on a pair of two-yard Kodee Brewer touchdown runs, a seven-yard run from Zaylen Cook and a 36-yard reception by Isaiah Lancaster from quarterback Kashif Taylor for the 29-0 lead with 1:29 to go in the half.
East Coweta (0-2), meanwhile, had a net of only 31 yards on 32 plays, including minus 21 yards on the ground, until the air strike to Carey, who ended up having a monster night offensively.
The big-play theme spilled over into the second half, as East Coweta withstood a 29-yard Connor Smith-McCrum field goal on the Trojans' first possession by taking a 99-yard Dantarius Chunn return to the house on the ensuing kickoff to pull within 18 midway through the third.
Things really began to get dicey in the fourth following two more quick scores — an 80-yard touchdown pass from Cronic to Chris Moore and an 83-yard hook-up between Cronic and Carey — bringing the score to 32-27 with 5:47 left on the clock.
"If you look at the majority of their scores, all four of them were big plays and one was on special teams," Calhoun said. "We missed two field goals. I'm so humbled and honored that we won, but we've got a lot to correct and a lot to clean up. We just can't keep giving up the big play. We've got to make people drive the field on us, which I don't think too many teams can do consistently throughout four quarters. That will be a big point of emphasis."
After Carrollton missed a 36-yard field goal attempt with 1:28 to go that would have made it an eight-point game, the Indians had one final chance to complete the improbable comeback.
But the Trojan defense rose to the occasion this time, forcing four consecutive incomplete passes, the last of which was broken up by cornerback Kenneth Towns to allow the offense to run out the clock and finally exhale.
Even though the closing minutes were a bit nerve-wracking, Calhoun was proud of the way his guys came in swinging right out of the gates to build the sizable advantage.
The Trojans marched right down the field on the opening drive for Cook's touchdown, which was set up by a 32-yard run from Brewer, and then broke out some trickery with a 43-yard halfback pass from freshman Keshawn Ridley to Miles McLendon to put the ball in Brewer's hands at the two-yard line for the next score.
Taylor and Lancaster got in rhythm from there, connecting on a pair of first-half passes for a combined 99 yards, highlighted by the 36-yard touchdown.
For the night, Brewer rushed for a game-high 143 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries, while Brandon Marenco came in with some fresh legs in the second half and picked up 61 yards on 10 totes.
Taylor was 13-of-22 for 168 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions, as Lancaster had three receptions for 100 yards and one score and McLendon caught six passes for 85 yards.
Defensively, junior linebacker Kevin Swint was all over the place, especially in the first half, recording seven tackles, including two for a loss.
Cronic completed 13-of-27 attempts for 334 yards and three touchdowns for the Indians, the bulk of which went the way of Carey, who finished with 10 receptions for 240 yards and two scores.
Carrollton now has one final tuneup before kicking off Region 7-AAAAA play on Sept. 7 by hosting rival Villa Rica. The Trojans will prepare for that showdown with their official home opener next Friday against Riverdale (2-0), which is unbeaten following its 19-14 win over Drew on Friday night.
"We scheduled two really difficult non-region games with AAAAAAA East Coweta and then Riverdale, who is 2-0 for the first time in I'm not sure how long," Calhoun said. "We've just got to come back, regroup, get healthy and have a good week of practice."