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Posted: September 29, 2011 5:34 p.m.

East meets best

Eastside faces top-ranked Sandy Creek for region supremacy

Sandy Creek may be the best high school football team in Georgia, in any classification. Eastside coaches certainly believe that.

"Yep. Them and Buford," head coach Rick Hurst and defensive coordinator Jason Tester both said independently.

Winning back-to-back state championships — one in Class AAAA (2009) and another in triple-A last year certainly backs that up. Throw in the fact that the Patriots haven't lost since their opening game of 2009 and the task at hand seems insurmountable. Needless to say, when Eastside and Sandy Creek take the field at Sharp Stadium tomorrow night, the Eagles will have their work cutout for them.

"It's one of the best teams I've seen in a long, long time," Hurst said. "Are they better than they were last year? In some areas, yes. They're so well-coached and solid everywhere. From a physical standpoint, we're just as physical. They just don't have any weaknesses."

Tomorrow's game has major playoff implications. While both Eastside and Sandy Creek sit atop Region 4-AAA at 3-0, the winner seizes control of the No. 1 seed. But a win would mean more to the Eagles. The Patriots have won 33 straight games and have proven capable of beating any team. Eastside on the other hand doesn't have the offense to run up scores and blow people away.

"We have to keep it a low-scoring game. If we do that, we have a chance," Hurst said. "If we get into a shootout, I don't know. I don't know if we can rack up 30-35 points against this team. Nobody has done it yet. I'm not saying we can't but our best gameplan is to keep it a low-scoring game."

The Patriots have the total package. They have a quarterback who throws well, two Division 1 prospects at wide receiver and a bruising running game. Sophomore quarterback Cole Garvin threw for 290 yards and four touchdowns and the three-headed monster of Joseph Alexander, JaQuay Williams and Demare Kitt each hauled in at least one of them.

"The quarterback throws a great ball. He throws it on time and on target and even when he's bad, those two cats can get up and make a play," Hurst said. "They're going to test you with the deep ball and see if they get you with the big play but they are a run team too. If things get tight, they'll try and run it down your throat. That's what they did to us last year. We have to make sure we are doing a great job in coverage and don't let anything get behind us."

Defensively, Sandy Creek flies to the ball and have a strong defensive line. As a result, it will be up to Eastside to dictate tempo. Ball control will be vastly important.

"The biggest thing for us is, we have to stay out of long yardage downs," Hurst said. "We have to be able to pick up yards on first down and we have to be able to get some drives. I'll take three yards on first down every time because that's manageable. We can't have three-and-outs. That's what happened to us last year. We had a lot of three-and-outs and that put us in a bind. Our defense was just worn out."

If the Eagles have any advantage it's on the defensive line. Sheldon Rankins, Antonius Sims and Shaquille Huff are coming off a monster game at Spalding in which they led the Eagles' defensive unit to a nine-sack performance. While Sandy Creek's offensive line is far better than Spalding's was, expect Tester to dial up the pressure in passing downs.

"They are a timing offense and we have to disrupt that timing," Hurst said. "We have to disguise our looks and put pressure on the quarterback. We have to throw him off, make him double clutch and let our defensive front get in there and make a play."

Cameron Boyd will also face his toughest test at quarterback of his young career. But he won't be going into the game totally blind. Boyd played the second half against Sandy Creek last year after Califf Carnes was knocked out of the game with a concussion and led the Eagles on a touchdown drive that brought them to within 16-10. Hurst hopes that experience will help his junior signal caller as he looks for that breakout win.

"He has to make smart decisions. He has to make throws on time and they have to be on target," Hurst said. "He can't throw it behind anyone because it will be a pick going the other way. If he makes good decisions then we have a chance to move it through the air."

Despite the pressure of needing to perform at a level he's yet to reach, Boyd won't be asked to carry the offense on his back. Running back Chavis Griggs is having a solid season carrying the ball. With Jamondi Smith out, he ran for 181 yards a week ago and has also given Boyd another option at receiver. He caught seven passes for 82 yards. Smith is questionable for tomorrow's game and Eastside could again lean on Griggs to shoulder the load.

"He's our workhorse right now," Hurst said. "He's proven he can carry the load. He touched the ball 40 times the other night but we have to have other guys step up and help carry some of that weight."

Two guys that could provide an offensive spark are wideouts Quan Moton and Dante Blackmon. Moton returns after sitting out last week and Blackmon should be back at full health after laboring with a knee injury. Blackmon in particular will be looking for a breakout game. After leading the Eagles in every receiving category in 2010, he's yet to have a signature game.

"Having Dante and Quan back at full-speed will be a big lift for us," Hurst said. "They'll be eyeballing Dante with their best cover back but he needs to make some plays and I think he will. He has big-play potential and we have to make sure we get it to him."

Eastside's coaching staff has prepared the Eagles to expect a great team. That doesn't mean they're afraid of the Patriots. No team is flawless, even one with a 33-game winning streak and two state championships in two years.

"It's going to be a huge challenge for us," Hurst said. "They exude confidence. Of course that's what winning 33 in a row will do for you. It's not cockiness though. They just go about their business and expect to win.

"We have to play at our best and they have to be a little off and make some mistakes and let us capitalize on us."

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