BY WIL CREWS
The matchup between the Opelika Bulldogs and Callaway Cavaliers delivered once again Friday night.
In their fourth meeting in five years, the Bulldogs stunned their week one opponent on the road, converting a two-point conversion to take their first lead of the night, 29-28, with 3:05 remaining in the ball game.
“We finally just settled down and starting making plays,” Opelika head coach Erik Speakman said in his post-game interview. “The defense settled down, and we finally got them once we got the lead.”
After battling back from a 14-point deficit twice on the night, junior quarterback Roman Gagliano converted a fourth down late in the game with a pass to junior receiver Jordan Tolbert, which took the Bulldogs to the Cavalier four-yard line, in position to achieve a potential game-tying score.
Two plays later, junior running back Calvin Hughley ran it two yards for the score to make it 28-27 in favor of Callaway with 3:05 remaining in the contest.
With last year’s contest between the two schools ending in a game-winning field goal from Callaway, Speakman had no intention of playing for a tie.
“We had five minutes and we went ahead and made the decision if we can score, we are going to go for two,” Speakman said. “We are going to try and win it here so we didn’t have to play overtime.”
Gagliano took the snap on the two-point try and promptly found senior Tae Gay in the end zone to give the Bulldogs a 29-28 lead.
“We worked [that play] all week, in fact,” Speakman said. “We were going to throw it to another person, but then Tae was open immediately.”
Callaway moved the ball down the field on the ensuing drive, but starting quarterback DesShun Coleman was sacked twice before turning the ball back over to Opelika on a failed fourth-and-17 pass attempt.
“When we came back out on defense, we finally got Callaway into what they don’t want to do — and that’s pass protect and throw the football,” Speakman said. “You saw them all night running the ball right at us. You always try to get these teams into things they don’t want to do, and we finally were able to do that with the lead.”
The Bulldogs then ran out the clock, concluding the fourth game of a new budding and flourishing rivalry.
For most of the contest, Opelika was playing catch-up. On the second play of Callaway’s first offensive drive, Coleman hit Bryceton Sanders on a 75-yard gashing touchdown pass to make 7-0.
The Cavaliers’ second drive established their run-first theme on the night, and was capped by a five-yard touchdown scamper from Jordan King to make it 14-0 with seven minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Opelika finally got going when a screen pass from Gagliano to a Bulldog receiver moved the ball to the Cavalier five-yard line. It took a fourth-and-goal, but Gagliano was able to execute a QB sneak to make the score 14-7 near the end of the first quarter.
The two teams traded scores in the second quarter — Opelika’s coming from a 50-yard touchdown pass connection between Gagliano and senior running back Caden Cooper — and the score sat at 21-14 at half.
The third quarter was completely devoid of scoring, but the Bulldogs began to turn momentum by intercepting Coleman on a deep pass which set the Opelika offense up near the goal line of its own territory. A controversial safety call initially made it 23-14 in favor of the Cavaliers, but the officials wiped away the play after the whistle.
Opelika then tied the game for the first time all night via a 40-yard pass from Gagliano to John Schwenk — plus the ensuing point-after-attempt — with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
From there, an epic finish played out in favor of the Dawgs and set Opelika’s season off to an electric 1-0 start to its season.
The Bulldogs return to action this week as they host Montgomery’s J.D. High School for the home opener of the season, Friday, Aug. 26, 7 p.m. CST, at Bulldog Stadium.