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Saraland comes up a yard short in 31-28 loss to Clay-Chalkville

Saraland quarterback K.J. Lacey is hit by Clay-Chalkville linebacker D.J. Barber, left, and Carlos Ivy on the final play of the Class 6A state championship game Friday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Barber stopped Lacey at the 1-yard line to preserve the 31-28 win. (Todd Stacey/Call News)


Saraland players, including Ryan Williams (1), try to console quarterback K.J. Lacey after Lacey was stopped at the 1 on the last play against Clay-Chalkville Friday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium, (Todd Stacey/Call News)



TUSCALOOSA — The greatest offense in Class 6A history gobbled up 6,110 yards and scored 90 touchdowns this season.

What Saraland would give for one more yard and one more touchdown.

With hearts jammed up against the Adam’s apples of thousands of pleading fans on both sides of Bryant-Denny Stadium, Spartans quarterback K.J. Lacey was stopped at Clay-Chalkville’s 1-yard line on a desperate scramble to the end zone as time evaporated and the No. 2-ranked Cougars held on for a 31-28 victory Friday night to dethrone the defending state champions.

Antone Ellison kicked a 26-yard field goal with 2:27 remaining to give Clay-Chalkville its first lead after it had stalked the favored, No. 1-ranked Spartans all night.

Saraland, which trailed for just the fourth time this season — and the first time in the fourth quarter — drove 88 yards in 12 plays in the final 2:18 and reached the Cougars’ 10 with five seconds remaining.

Lacey, who had been sacked three times and was flushed from the pocket numerous times, brought the Spartans to the verge of victory by escaping the pass rush for a 20-yard gain, matching his longest carry of the season. Three plays moved it to the 10 and coach Jeff Kelly used his last time out on fourth down with five seconds remaining to consider a tying field goal or going for the win.

He thought about a fake, thought about the field goal and thought about one of the best offenses in state history.

“We had a fake we really liked,” Kelly said. “It crossed my mind. But with no time outs, if it’s not there pre-snap, it’s a tough situation.”

The field goal would have been about 27 yards, well within Tucker Singleton’s range, but Singleton had pulled a 35-yarder wide left in the third quarter, his first miss in four attempts this season.

“Tucker’s done a good job,” Kelly said. “But I felt like I had some of the best players around, so we went for it. I believe in our kids. One play for 10 yards … If we’d have had a timeout, it would have changed things totally.”

Lacey looked for man-to-man coverage on the backside but Clay-Chalkville dropped extra defensive backs into coverage to keep a pass out of the end zone. Suddenly, the Cougars’ defense parted.

“They left the middle of the field open,” Lacey said. “I saw the opportunity and I took it.”

But Clay-Chalkville linebacker D.J. Barber stopped Lacey at the 1 to end one of the most exciting state championship games ever played.

“They went five wide and they have a great quarterback who is known for his throwing ability,” Barber said. “We knew we had to get locked on their receivers but also get your eyes on the quarterback.”

As Cougars players swarmed onto the field in celebration, Lacey lay face down on the grass where he was stopped.

Lacey was inconsolable afterward and it took several teammates to pry him off the ground.

“I wouldn’t say we thought we were invincible,” Lacey said. “But we’re the big dogs.”

Saraland’s players and fans were in shock at the end.

“It’s such a bittersweet night, a tough night,” Kelly said. “We’ve all been in sports a long time and there are unbelievable joys and then there are nights like tonight. It was two great teams going at it.”

Kelly found halting words for his devastated players.

“I told them I love them,” he said. “We’ve just got to get up the next day and play the next play. These guys are champions.”

Clay-Chalkville coach Drew Gilmer was surprised Kelly went for the win.

“We thought they’d kick the field goal,” Gilmer said. “We had our field goal block team out there. Then we had to change it out.”

The loss — which broke the state’s longest winning streak at 20 straight victories — came despite record-setting performances from Lacey and wide receiver Ryan Williams.

Lacey and Williams set new Super 7 records with 389 yards passing and 232 yards receiving, respectively, but they’d trade it for another Blue Map. Lacey’s 27 completions are a Class 6A Super 7 record.

Although many fans wanted to see five-star Alabama commitments Williams and Jaylen Mbakwe go head-to-head, Gilmer gambled by keeping Mbakwe under center at quarterback and off the corner for most of the game. Accordingly, Williams, the reigning Mr. Football, promptly made the Cougars’ defenders look as if they were sitting in rocking chairs and sipping on warm milk.

In the first of what Crimson Tide fans hope are many games he plays at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Williams had 344 all-purpose yards and scored all four Saraland touchdowns — catching 11 passes for 232 yards, including touchdown bombs of 63 and 77 yards from Lacey in the first half, returning the second-half kickoff 86 yards for a third touchdown and adding a 2-yard scoring run.

“They had some confidence in their secondary to play him straight up,” Kelly said.

And Williams made them pay.

“I knew I could get behind them,” Williams said. “In the second half, they started playing four and five guys back.”

In a show of respect and friendship, Mbakwe waited on the field to greet Williams before both departed the stadium.

Williams has scheduled a press conference Monday at Saraland to announce his future plans; one option is reclassifying and leaving high school a year early. Auburn has been working to flip Williams but that seems unlikely based on his remarks after the game.

“It was a great experience playing here,” Williams said. “It felt like home.”

Lacey — the Texas commitment who played in front of visiting Longhorns coach Steve Sarkisian — was 27-of-38 passing for 389 yards.

“We planned to set the tone and we did,” Lacey said. “We played our hearts out. We’ll be back next year.”

Lacey said an injury to starting offensive tackle Daylan Martin on the last play of the first half shook an offensive line that was already having trouble blocking in the run game. The Spartans had just 33 yards rushing — far below their average of 167 — and 16 in the second half with Martin on crutches.

Saraland (14-1) finished the season with a Class 6A scoring record of 754 points, breaking Clay-Chalkville’s record of 731 set in 2014, when the Cougars edged the Spartans 36-31 in another classic state championship game.

This time, Clay-Chalkville (14-0) had Mbakwe, the game’s MVP who managed to slide through mail slots and keyholes for 130 yards on 26 carries and three touchdowns and was 9-of-17 passing for 152 yards and another TD.

“I don’t know if you come in with a mindset of stopping him,” Kelly said. “Their offensive line did a good job and they committed to the run.”

The Cougars rushed for 239 yards against a Saraland defense which had allowed only 241 in four playoff games. Their dominance in the running game also drained 28:23 off the clock and kept the ball away from the Spartans’ offense, which had only one sustained drive of 70 yards until the last possession.

Williams felt the urgency to score so much that he jumped in front of Santae McWilliams to field the second-half kickoff and raced 86 yards for a touchdown and a 28-21 lead.

“Coming out of halftime, I thought we needed a touchdown,” Williams said. “They were trying to kick it away from me. I decided wherever the ball is going, I’m going to get it. Santae said, ‘I’ve got it,’ and I said, ‘No, I’d take it.’ He might have been mad at me for a moment.”

In another pivotal moment, Saraland had a chance to take a two-score lead in the third quarter but didn’t take advantage. Leading 28-21, defensive end Jermaine Paramore stripped Mbakwe on a speed sweep to give the Spartans the ball at Clay-Chalkville’s 45. But a false start on third-and-goal from the 2 choked the drive and Singleton missed the 35-yard field goal.

“It was a huge series,” Kelly said. “They do that shifting at the snap and we flinched reacting to the shift. We let them off the hook.”

1 Comment

  1. Tara on December 11, 2023 at 12:21 am

    This whole article was trash. Nothing was giving to us we are champions, we know how to win and we know how to go undefeated. Next time you write an article make it known we win cause we can and we do. Nothing about this game was luck. You had great athletes on both teams the better team won. Let us off the hook you say? Go all the way back to 2021 and watch film then ask yourself if y’all played a lucky team. Throw the whole one sided article away. Sign a champion

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