TAMPA — It was the biggest game of unbeaten Armwood's season, but as far as coach Sean Callahan was concerned his Hawks weren't playing like it. In the first two quarters of a road game against district rival Jefferson, Armwood accrued nine penalties and had just four first downs.
At the break, Callahan lit a fire under his team. Fourteen seconds into the second half with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Hawks proved to Callahan they took his words to heart. The return gave Armwood a lead it wouldn't relinquish on its way to a 28-9 victory against Jefferson.
"The whole thing was us settling down," Callahan. "Hopefully with adversity, we learned from it. … I was embarrassed by the level of play."
Armwood came in having allowed only 14 points all season, but Noah Pena capped off Jefferson's first drive with a 29-yard field goal to take a 6-0 lead. Armwood (5-0, 4-0) had just 7 total yards of offense in the first quarter.
Jefferson quarterback Deiondre Porter, who finished with 201 total yards, had a strong first half, and with 6:15 to go before the break he connected with Chavez Pownell for a 13-yard touchdown, the first Armwood had allowed in 12 quarters.
The Dragons (3-1, 2-1) wouldn't score again, and the Hawks' defense wasn't the only thing to blame.
Callahan's halftime speech forced Armwood to clean up its act in the second half, but Jefferson did not. The Dragons finished with 12 penalties, nine of which came after halftime.
Talvin Bailey's 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown gave Armwood its first lead, 14-9, 14 seconds into the third quarter.
Forced to play from behind, the Dragons were stunted by a scrappy Armwood defense. When the Hawks had the ball, however, Jefferson penalties helped push them closer to the end zone.
On Armwood's third drive of the second half, back-to-back Jefferson unsportsmanlike penalties gave the Hawks a short field. Two plays later, Greg Newton rushed for a 4-yard touchdown.
"I want to say statistically we've had less than six penalties in every game," a visibly frustrated Jefferson coach Jeremy Earle said. "All of a sudden tonight we turned into the worst-disciplined team ever."
Less than three minutes later, Pena, not far from his own end zone, punted the ball just 15 yards. A short return gave Armwood the ball at the 4-yard line. Armwood's two-play drive, ending with a 1-yard run from Craig Carrington, gave Armwood the game's final score.
Jefferson's explosive offense came into Friday's matchup averaging 445 yards per game. Friday, Armwood held it to just 237 yards.
After the game, quarterback Noah Johnson, who finished with 142 yards through the air, gushed about his teammates on the other side of the ball.
"They played their behind off, every single carry," Johnson said. "We got their back, they got our back. Whenever we're not going, they're going."
Armwood's win was its ninth straight regular-season victory against Jefferson since 2002, having lost the only one because of forfeit. The regular season is not halfway over, but some are calling Armwood district champion after its win against Jefferson.
A proud, yet seemingly relieved Callahan won't argue.
"It should be," he said, "unless there's a total meltdown."