Gators use defense, special teams to beat Callaway

Published 12:41 am Saturday, October 21, 2023

For the third week in a row, the Vicksburg Gators found themselves clinging to a two-point lead with time winding down in the fourth quarter.

The difference this time was that they got the defensive stops to hang on to it.

The Gators snuffed out two Callaway drives in the fourth quarter, one with an interception and the other with a pair of sacks, and kept their playoff hopes alive by beating the Chargers 18-16 at Memorial Stadium.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Vicksburg (5-3, 1-2 MHSAA Region 2-6A) lost its first two region games by one point each, both on field goals with less than two minutes to go. This was its fifth game overall that was decided by six points or less.

“Tonight we knew what we had on the line and we knew we didn’t want to go out like that. We were the better team. So we went out and showed them,” said Vicksburg defensive lineman Demarcus Johnson, whose sack ended Callaway’s last drive with 1:27 remaining.

The Gators might have been better, but they didn’t necessarily show it for most of the night.

A potential long touchdown pass was dropped, and a first-and-goal at the Callaway 9 ended in a turnover on downs at the 32 after two sacks.

Vicksburg scored on two of its first three possessions to take a quick 13-0 lead four minutes into the game, then gained a total of four yards and one first down on its next six drives. It finished the game with 175 total yards.

DeCorey Knight Jr. scored on a 12-yard run and Collin Johnson a 4-yard run for the Gators. Johnson also broke a 69-yard run to set up Knight’s TD, on a play that accounted for most of their 99 total yards in the first half.

“We were better than that team and we played down to the competition. Talent can’t win us games. Execution and effort can. We came out here and didn’t show any of those, and we still made too many mistakes. We’ve got to fix that stuff,” Vicksburg head coach Christopher Lacey said, visibly frustrated. “I’m a realist. We’re trying to teach the game of life. You cannot come out here with subpar effort and subpar execution and think you’re going to win games. Lord willing we make it to the playoffs, that’s not going to win us games.”

Callaway took advantage of Vicksburg’s slump to rally from its early deficit. Two 15-yard penalties helped the Chargers move the ball down the field and set up a 6-yard TD run by quarterback Kantrell Thomas Jr. In the second quarter, Jeremy Scott scored on an 11-yard run and Thomas added the two-point conversion for a 16-13 lead.

Vicksburg’s defense buckled down in the second half, however, and two big special teams plays provided the points the offense couldn’t.

When a 12-play drive stalled just outside the red zone, Cedrick Blackmore kicked a 38-yard field goal to tie it with 4:40 left in the third quarter.

“I keep telling people that he has a range that I am comfortable with him kicking the ball,” Lacey said. “People keep saying we don’t have a kicker. We’ve got a kid that can kick. I’m not saying he’s Adam Vinatieri, but he does what we need him to do for us. Tonight he showed up and did it.”

On Callaway’s next possession, Tyler Smith fumbled the kickoff out of bounds at his own 8-yard line and the Chargers went three-and-out. Duran McClendon had to punt from his own goal line, and the Gators blocked it.

Vicksburg was not able to corral the loose ball, but did knock it back toward the goal line. A Callaway player fell on it just inside the end zone for a safety that put Vicksburg ahead 18-16.

Callaway also fumbled a kickoff in the first half that Vicksburg recovered inside the 5, and it led to Collin Johnson’s touchdown.

“It’s been there all year. It’s just kids having to sell out and make plays,” Lacey said of the momentum-swinging special teams plays.

Vicksburg’s offense continued to struggle in the fourth quarter — it had two first downs on three possessions — but the defense secured the win.

Tyler Henderson’s interception at the goal line with 5:55 remaining ended a nine-play drive by Callaway that advanced inside the 30.

Callaway then got the ball back with 2:46 left and went nowhere. After a short completion on first down, Thomas threw incomplete on second down and was sacked on third and fourth by Dennis Battle and Demarcus Johnson. It was Battle’s second sack of the game.

“The defense played well, but my offense has got to come on with it. I’m challenging them to do so,” Lacey said. “I think it was talent taking over. I’m not going to let that take us wherever we’ve got to go. You’ve got your Alabamas and Georgias and their talent plus execution wins national championships. I like to think we’re one of those types of teams and we’ve just got to play like it.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

email author More by Ernest