FORT VALLEY, Ga. -- In a clash against the No. 1-ranked team in Class AAA with the Region-2 championship on the line, the Carver defense showed up with a chip on its shoulder.
The unit swarmed. It pressured the quarterback. It forced turnovers.
Ultimately, it shut Peach County down to help lead the team to a 26-17 win in Fort Valley on Friday night, giving Carver its fifth straight region championship and its first-ever win over the Trojans.
"The defense played a great game," Carver coach Dell McGee said amid a celebration from the Carver players and fans. "Peach County has a lot of talent. They're hard to stop, but the defense implemented the game plan and tackled well."
Carver (8-1, 5-0) struggled at some points during the first half. After taking a 7-3 lead early on a Danny Ryles touchdown run, it gave up a sustained Peach County (8-1, 4-1) drive and a 53-yard punt return for a touchdown by Trojans star wide receiver Damarcus Robinson.
After the punt return, Carver trailed 17-7 with only 55 seconds remaining in the first half. In what may have been the turning point of the game, however, the Tigers offense marched down the field with three plays in just 32 seconds.
Brandon Thomas, who finished the game with 89 yards, picked up 51 on the first play of the drive. Two plays later, quarterback Torrance McGee found receiver Marqui Hawkins in the corner of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown. Hawkins stretched out over his head and dragged his toe inbounds for the score.
Carver came out after halftime and picked up right where it left off. The offensive line opened holes, and the running backs obliged, gashing the Peach County defense for 80 yards on eight plays, culminating in a 2-yard run by McGee to give the Tigers a 19-17 lead after a failed 2-point conversion.
"Being down at the half, and then going up was huge," McGee said. "The offensive line did a great job all game."
Overall, the running game amassed 310 yards and two touchdowns for the Tigers.
That slim lead is all Carver would need the rest of the way. The defense came to life in the second half, forcing three turnovers, sacking the quarterback three times and allowing zero points.
Just two plays after Carver took a 19-17 lead, linebacker Mekhi Brown found his way to Peach County quarterback Greg Williams, stripping the ball, which bounced into the hands of Brandon Watt. Watt recovered and raced 30 yards for the score, giving Carver a two-possession lead.
"When (Brown) got to the quarterback, I just knew I had to get that ball," Watt said. "It bounced right to me and I took it in."
Even when Peach County appeared to have opportunities to move the ball after that, the Tigers defense stood tall. Gerald Williams recorded two more sacks for the defense, and Marcus Parks and Talik Quarterman each recorded an interception.
Quarterman's interception came on a tipped pass that fell right into his hands.
"The big boys up front got a good pass rush," Quarterman said, "and our (defensive backs) played their assignments. I'm just speechless right now. I feel great. It was a team effort--the fans, the band, everybody."
McGee said earlier this week that his defense wouldn't focus too much of its efforts on double-covering Peach County's star wide receiver Robinson. Instead, he wanted to focus on stopping the run.
Carver allowed just 58 yards on the ground and still limited Robinson to 77 yards on four catches and no touchdowns through the air.
"That's a championship-level team we just played," McGee said. "Both teams can play a long way into the playoffs this year. This was the first part of our goal this season, and we accomplished that tonight. We still have to finish the season."
Friday at Peach County
Carver 0 13 13 0--26
Peach 0 17 0 0--17
PC--Cervantes 38 kick, 9:49
C--Ryles 5 run (Lewis kick), 7:11
PC--Lowe 4 run (Cervantes kick), 2:37
PC--Robinson 53 punt return (Cervantes kick), :55
C--Hawkins 10 pass from McGee (kick failed), :17
C--McGee 2 run (run failed), 9:52
C--Watt 30 fumble return (Lewis kick), 9:06
Team records: Carver (8-1, 5-0); Peach County (8-1, 4-1). Next: Carver, Nov. 9 at Jackson; Peach County, Nov. 9 vs. Southwest-Macon