In 15 years of coaching football, Eastside head coach Rick Hurst had always wanted his team to open with a long touchdown pass.
Thanks to quarterback Justin Wray and wide receiver Andrico Bailey, his vision was realized Friday night at Sharp Stadium against crosstown Newton, as the Rams (0-1) lost, 31-0, before a sold out crowd.
"Justin stepped up and made a great play," said Hurst. "It just set the tempo for the game, and it's what we wanted to do."
During the first offensive possession of the 2007 season, Wray launched a deep throw to Bailey, who then proceeded to turn on the afterburners and blast his way into the end zone for the score. The duo took advantage of a much younger and inexperienced secondary, and it worked.
After the extra point and 16 seconds of play, the Eagles (1-0) had a 7-0 lead. They never looked back.
"I can't say enough about our coaching staff and our kids," praised Hurst. "I didn't do much. It was a whole group effort, and I thought we played a sound ball game."
Overall, the Eagles notched 372 yards of total offense - 186 passing and 186 rushing, doubling the amount of first downs (16) the Rams recorded.
For first-year Newton head coach Nick Collins, this wasn't supposed to happen. Nevertheless, he tried to remain optimistic after the game despite the extremely frustrating loss.
"We gained something here tonight," said Collins. "I don't know what, but after we look at the film we'll figure it out. Right now our kids don't understand the game. Until they learn (it) we may have to simplify some things."
After the disastrous opening drive executed by visiting Eastside - which immediately silenced the Newton-faithful - the Rams found themselves still trailing by seven entering the second quarter.
But despite a 28-yard kickoff return by Reuben Hatchett, the Rams failed to jump start their offense. After 12 plays, Newton had just 11 rushing yards and 11 passing yards during the initial 12 minutes of action.
Eastside added 10 more points in the second quarter, thanks largely in part to running back Larenzo Echols and kicker Yanrik Tinker.
With four minutes and 32 seconds remaining in the second period, Echols - who averaged 9.0 yards per carry in 2006 - broke several tackles before breaking away for a 23-yard touchdown. With the extra point, the Eagles had a more comfortable 14-0 lead.
But the Rams immediately countered with a 10-play drive beginning at their own 35-yard line. Highlighted by starting quarterback Demetrious McCray, who completed three consecutive passes during a span of three minutes and 14 seconds, the Rams found themselves on Eastside's 16-yard line on fourth and 10.
"From time to time, I thought we threw the ball well," acknowledged Collins, "and there (were) times when we protected well. But we blew five scoring opportunities, and we didn't catch the football when we needed to."
A touchdown pass (and point-after) would have cut the lead in half, while a field goal would have also given Newton a little momentum entering halftime. Unfortunately, neither occurred, which could be attributed to solid pass coverage by the Eagles.
"It was huge," recalled Hurst. "We put ourselves in a couple of bad spots (early) on, but our defense played lights out. When it came down to it, we made the play when we had to."
Eastside wasted no time in taking advantage of the missed scoring opportunity. Greg Griffith (two carries for 51 yards) exploded up the middle for a 46-yard gain. And after Wray completed a 16-yard pass to Bailey (two receptions for 89 yards), the Eagles found themselves in scoring position with under 20 seconds remaining until the half.
At this time it was Hurst who decided to unleash his junior placekicker - Tinker - who crushed an NFL-like 43-yard field goal which could have easily cleared 50.
Tinker, who is from Jamaica, had never kicked a football prior to this year.
"He's got a great future ahead of him," said Hurst. "He's a weapon, and gives us a lot of options when we get down inside the 30-yard line."
Once the spectacular halftime performance by both bands had ended, it was back to action. But not soon after a 32-yard kickoff return by Hatchett did the first injury occur, after the senior was pummeled to the ground by a swarm of Eagles.
After several moments of silence, Hurst - showing a sign of good gesture - trotted over to where Hatchett lay surrounded by trainers and coaches. It was a prime example reminding everyone that even though this was considered one of the biggest rivalries this side of Atlanta, it didn't mean that good sportsmanship was lacking.
"(Hurst) asked me if he was OK," recalled Collins. "That's a lot of class in that situation."
Hatchett suffered a deep thigh bruise, and is listed as day-to-day.
Nevertheless, the gloves were soon back off. After a pass interference call against the Eagles, they were immediately slapped with another penalty, this time for unsportsmanlike conduct (15-yard penalty).
Despite nearing the end zone, McCray would eventually fumble on Eastside's 27-yard line after getting hit by Bo Childers, to which Jay Maddox would recover the only turnover of the game.
Now it was time for the Eagles to administer their own impressive drive. After 12 plays that chewed up seven minutes of clock, Eastside executed to near perfection: Seven rush attempts (27 yards) and three pass completions (30 yards) that ended with a 12-yard touchdown pass by Wray to Johnny Norrington (two receptions for 17 yards).
Tinker added the extra point to make it 24-0, which would remain the same entering the final 12 minutes.
Newton's offense continued to struggle during the fourth quarter, as its first possession resulted in four-and-out. As a result, Eastside would again take advantage of the mismatch. After a 23-yard scamper by Wray down the left sideline, newcomer Rashad Hill added a 5-yard touchdown of his own, with 5:50 remaining left in the game. The point-after by Tinker (seven points) made it 31-0.
"It was just a total team effort," said Hurst. "It's hard to single out anybody. When you beat somebody 31-0 there (are) a lot of folks who did the right thing."
Overall, Wray was 8 for 16 with 154 yards and two touchdowns. On the ground, he recorded 42 yards on six carries. More impressively, the young quarterback effectively spread the field and committed few mistakes, such as not turning the ball over.
In comparison, McCray was 7 for 21 with 58 yards. Despite connecting with five different receivers, he simply did not have the pass protection needed to establish some type of rhythm.
"We've got a new coaching staff and a bunch of young players (who) are learning the game," said Collins. "I'm not going to hang my head over one loss on day one. We're going to work and we're going to build a program. The bottom line is that we've got to keep coaching. We have to find the guys (who) are going to make us successful."
Defensively, Eastside operated like a brick wall, especially when the Rams attempted to run the football. Although eight different players recorded at least one carry, the Rams combined for 59 yards on 29 rushes (2.03 yards per carry). In addition, Newton was held to just 115 yards of total offense.
Eastside's Bo Childers led all players with 7.5 tackles. Maurice Gaither (one sack) and Andrew Vasquez each recorded six tackles, while Jamario Parks and William White had five apiece. Maddox also had a sack for the Eagles.
Leading tacklers for Newton included Quinton Pooler (six), including Curtis Fletcher (5.5) and Wesley Shelton (4.5). Andrew Fulmer also recorded a sack.
Last year, the Eagles barely escaped with a 21-20 victory against the Rams. However, their new motto this season is "Raise the Bar," which is exactly what Eastside did this time. In fact, it could have been far worse had the Eagles not committed 10 penalties resulting in 97 yards.
"It's now behind us," said Collins. "We've got our feet really wet and now we've got something to work with. I'm not mad, I'm not upset - I'm disappointed, but we go back to work on Monday and we look forward to (this) week."
Eastside will travel to Loganville on Friday, while Newton will battle yet another crosstown opponent, Alcovy, at Sharp Stadium.