Eastside may have shocked the football community with Saturday’s 38-14 dismantling of Region 8-AAA juggernaut Stephens County Saturday, but Eagle coach Rick Hurst knew all along what the rest of state is just finding out. Eastside is for real.
Tonight, the Eagles get another test when they travel north to Hartwell to take on Hart County at Herndon Stadium.
"We’ve had a good week of practice and we are ready to go," Hurst said. "Hart County is yet another tough team that has a rich tradition so we have to be ready to play."
The Eagles forced five turnovers against the Indians in Saturdays win and for the first time, Eastside goes into a game with a positive turnover ratio.
The Eagles will need to turn up the defensive pressure as Hurst said he doesn’t expect Hart County to be as sloppy with the ball. That means Eastside’s defense will need to do a better job against the run.
"We need to get better defensively," Hurst said. "We need to play assignment football. We finally showed last week that we could stop the run in the second half, but you can’t give up 175 yards to one running back in the first half and get away with it. At some point, it’s going to hurt us."
After Indian running back Ren Teasley ran all over the Eagles’ defense in the first half, Eastside was able to force three turnovers and take control of the game. Ball control will be the key tonight as Eastside will look to its plethora of running backs to chew up yardage on the ground.
"We definitely have a stacked backfield and that is a luxury to have," Hurst said. "We’ll see how the game plays out and I am always a firm believer that you go with the hot hand."
Against Stephens County, Git Aiken proved to be the man as he ran for 108 yards on 10 carries. With Greg Griffieth still out, Eastside will get Rashad Hill, Tony Atwater, Aiken and bruiser back Broderick Alexander involved in the running game early and often.
Wray threw for more than 100 yards and a touchdown Saturday and Hurst feels good about his senior quarterback’s progress in the passing game. The Eagles will look to spread the ball and take advantage of whatever Hart County gives them."We will figure out what defense they are running and make adjustments," Hurst said. "Justin has been doing a great job reading the defense and his accuracy is getting better and better. It will depend on what we see as to whether we open up the passing game."
Defensively, the Eagles will need to stop the run and clean up the secondary. Wray played much of the game at safety due to some missed assignments by Eastside’s secondary and Alexander may see more time at linebacker as Brandon Petit is nursing a sore ankle and will not play.
"I always say you play the best team you have," Hurst said. "I would hate to lose a game knowing my best players weren’t playing."
That sentiment may raise some concern for Eagle fans especially with Wray who played nearly the entire Stephens County game. But Hurst keeps things in perspective and doesn’t worry about losing his star quarterback to injury.
"Of course there is always a concern he [Wray] may get injured but we need him to play defense," he said. "We are only going to use him when we need him. If the situation calls for it, we’ll use him."
At 5-0, the Eagles are off to the best start in school history. But Hurst dismisses any talk of a perfect season and said it’s way to early to think about going undefeated.
"It’s on the back of the coaches minds, sure," admitted Hurst. "But look, we have a lot more football left to play. We have tough games and tough teams to play starting tonight against Hart County."
Hurst is no stranger to perfect seasons. As a member of the 1996 Americus team that came to within a game of winning the 1A state title, he looks at the similarities between the two teams but stops short of making any direct comparisons.
"Offensively, this team is better, but we have to get better defensively," he said. "Right now, we are relying on our offense and we are scoring a lot of points. We have to stop the run, but I think we are getting there."
The Eagles will play a Hart County team that skunked Jackson County 41-0 Friday. Coming from Americus, Hurst knows a small town football community can be a tough place to play.
"We just have to play better for the whole game and we have to be aggressive on both sides of the ball," he said. "We need to stay in our gaps and play assignment football and we should be in good shape."