Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. South Gwinnett's Aaron Wimberly (6) moves the ball upfield as Brookwood's Cameron Lynch (38) is dragged along the ground on Friday.
SNELLVILLE - Like most of his South Gwinnett teammates, senior Eric Callaway could only sit on the sidelines and watch. It was up to the 11 guys on the Comets' defense to save the day.
And they did that in the final minute Friday night.
Callaway and his teammates turned their anxiety into joy when Kardae Matchett intercepted Brookwood's Ben McLane, stopping the Broncos' last-gasp drive in South territory and giving the Comets a 17-14 win that clinched the No. 2 seed from Region 8-AAAAA.
It also gave South just its fourth win in 26 tries - and first since 2003 - against rival Brookwood.
"I can't even explain how it feels," said Callaway, the Comets' starting center. "I've never beaten Brookwood in eight years and to beat them on senior night is great. It's the best feeling I've ever had."
South's high-scoring offense gets the bulk of the attention each week, but it was the defense that made the difference in the low-scoring slugfest. Neither team scored in the second half, making Saxon Venair's 37-yard field goal that barely cleared the crossbar late in the first half the game-winner.
It held up because the Comets (8-1, 6-1) didn't allow the visiting Broncos (4-5, 4-3) anywhere near the end zone in the final two quarters.
"(The defense) came up big for us," said South quarterback Kent Rollins, who completed 13 of 22 passes for 194 yards against a Brookwood team he played for last season. "In two big games they came up big for us. They came up big against Parkview (a 14-10 win) and they came up big against Brookwood."
Justin Smith and Micah Harpe had big second-half sacks for the Comets, who constantly pressured McLane on virtually every pass. The junior finished 5 of 18 passing for 30 yards and most of his incompletions came when he had to throw it away to avoid sacks. The majority of South's pressure came from rushing just its four down linemen.
Brookwood's defense also played well, led by an interception and two tackles for losses by Keenan Harp, Cameron's Lynch's three tackles for losses and two sacks and Marvis Lane's three tackles for losses and a fumble recovery. But the Broncos' offense sputtered outside of Julian Suber, who returned from knee and ankle injuries to rushes for 158 yards and both of his team's TDs.
"(The defense) played really well," Brookwood head coach Mark Crews said. "We gave up some chunks (of yardage), but they kept us in the game. On offense, we got into situations where we had to throw the ball and we couldn't pass protect. But I'm proud of our kids. They played hard."
Brookwood muffed the opening kickoff, starting on its own 2-yard line. But after three running plays of six yards or more, Suber broke off a 76-yard TD run.
South evened the score with a 12-play, 87-yard drive that was capped by Aaron Wimberly's 1-yard TD run. He rushed for 146 yards on 24 carries.
Rollins hit Jonathan Krause for a 47-yard scoring strike early in the second quarter. Brookwood evened the score on a 32-yard run by Suber before Venair's field goal gave the Comets a halftime edge.
The Comets drove into Bronco territory on their first five drives of the second half, but got no points out of it. They even took over at the Brookwood 18-yard line early in the fourth quarter after Krause's 43-yard punt return, but the Broncos got a quick stop after a fourth-down incomplete pass by Rollins.
All those trips and no points shifted some momentum back to the visitors.
"Usually that's a bad sign," South head coach John Small said. "But Brookwood did a great job of playing defense, too, and keeping us out of the end zone."
The Broncos' last two stops gave them a chance. Robert Edwards threw Rollins for a four-yard loss on third-and-two from the Brookwood 13, leading to a missed field goal by Venair. But a three-and-out gave the ball back to the Comets, who also went three-and-out thanks to a tackle for a loss by Lynch and a sack by David Cooper.
A punt gave the Broncos the ball at the South 45-yard line with 56 seconds left. A short pass to Andre Sims was followed by a pass breakup from Jazzin Anderson. On third-and-9, a bad snap to McLane forced the quarterback to scoop the ball up and hurry a pass.
That's where Matchett was waiting for a leaping interception, racing back into Bronco territory before he was tripped up with a South victory cradled in his arms with 28 seconds remaining.
"I was just excited," Matchett said. "I saw the ball, tucked it and ran. I just thought, 'Oh I just caught that ball. I'm going to try and score a touchdown.' I would have if I hadn't tripped."
It was the final big play from a South defense that stepped up in one of the biggest wins in school history.
"Beating Brookwood and getting a home playoff game were both big," Small said. "It was great to have home field advantage in the playoffs for our community and our football team. The fans have been so loyal and stayed behind us, the whole student body has been great. It's exciting and I guess it's icing on the cake to beat your crosstown rival."