By David Friedlander | Photo by Willie Prince
POWDER SPRINGS, Ga. — Sometimes, even the best teams need something to spark a change in momentum, and Mill Creek was definitely one of those teams late in the first quarter of the Hawks’ second-round Class 7A playoff game at McEachern.
Mill Creek, ranked No. 9 in SBLive’s Top 25, got plenty of them as the Hawks rallied for 45 straight points after trailing by two touchdowns early en route to a 52-30 victory Friday night at Walter H. Cantrell Stadium.
There was senior running back Donovan Journey, who ran for 100 of his 118 yards and both of his touchdowns in the second half, as well as junior quarterback Hayden Clark, who posted 118 of his 163 passing yards and all three of his TD passes in the final 48 minutes.
Several players contributed to Mill Creek (11-1) being opportunistic enough to turn three McEachern (7-5) turnovers and two other special team miscues into 31 points.
However, the first, and perhaps biggest spark on the evening came from a familiar source in Caleb Downs.
The composite five-star safety prospect did a little bit of everything in Friday night’s win, especially when his team needed it most.
The Hawks spotted the Indians a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter behind Coastal Carolina-commited quarterback Bryce Archie, who threw for 304 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 120 and two more scores. East Carolina-committed receiver Kaleb Webb finished with seven catches for 136 yards and two TDs, plus a pair of two-point conversion passes.
“We kind of had to rally a little bit,” Mill Creek coach Josh Lovelady said. “(McEachern) came out fast and hit us in the mouth, and we had to respond. We didn’t hit the panic button.”
It’s a little easier for a team not to panic when it has a player as dynamic as Downs, and the 6-foot-1, 188-pound junior made his presence felt after the Hawks had moved to the McEachern 27-yard line by the time the first quarter ended.
He entered the game on offense and lined up in the shotgun of a Wildcat formation, just as he had numerous times throughout the season, including on two snaps earlier in the drive.
Only this time, instead of running or handing the ball up, Downs took the first snap of the second quarter and floated a pass toward the end zone that found Tye Green behind the secondary for a 27-yard TD pass, pulling the Hawks to within 14-7 with 11:53 left in the half.
“When you’ve got a player like Caleb, you try to get him the ball and give him an opportunity,” Lovelady said.
It was only the second time Downs and the Hawks have attempted that play this season, and the first one didn’t end well, with a completed pass, but for a 3-yard loss.
Despite that experience, he knew his team was counting on him executing, especially with the McEachern defense geared to stop him from producing on the ground if he kept the ball.
“They tried to come down on me to stop the run,” Downs said. “Them trying to focus on me allows my teammates to excel, and it was a great play call by the coaches.”
The touchdown pulled Mill Creek to within 14-7 with 11:53 left in the first half, and if that play wasn’t the spark that ignited the Hawks, what happened over the next 3:14 did.
And once again, Downs was in the middle of it all.
With McEachern facing second and 15 on its own 31 on the next possession, Archie attempted to find Webb deep down the left sideline.
But with the ball slightly overthrown, Downs swooped in from his safety position and made a diving interception and kept his feet in the field of play before falling out of bounds.
The pick was the 14th of his career, extending his own school record, and his fifth this season, matching his freshman year total and second among all-time single-season school marks, trailing only Kishawn Miller’s six in 2015.
More importantly, it firmly cemented momentum in Mill Creek’s favor, as the Hawks followed with a 28-yard field goal from Trace Butcher with 9:52 left in the half, and then took the lead for good at 17-14 at the 8:39 mark when Downs ran in from a yard out from the Wildcat.
“I think after (Friday night), he’s got the whole triple crown,” Lovelady said of Downs. “He’s thrown for a touchdown, he’s run it, he’s got a kick return and an interception and everything else.
“It’s the playoffs. When you’ve got a good player, the cream rises to the top, and he did.”
From there, the Hawks were off and running, or maybe flying. They ran off 45 straight points that led to the win after they blunted a brief McEachern comeback attempt in the fourth quarter.
And it was their hottest star that lit the fuse for their explosion.
“We just have to come out strong and play every play,” said Downs, who also entered Friday’s game as the team’s leading tackler with 65 combined tackles and assists, to go with 11 pass breakups. “Even if we get down, we’ve just got to rally behind whoever’s making plays. Everybody picks it up.”
Mill Creek will lean on Downs again on the day after Thanksgiving when the Hawks play at Milton in the quarterfinals.