Eastside could easily be 2-0 heading into tonight's region opener at Locust Grove. Instead, a late touchdown powered rival Newton past the Eagles 10-3 for a third straight victory between the two rivals and now Eastside must regroup.
The good news for Eastside fans is that this is a veteran team and the Eagles have already moved on. They are in the same situation they've been in the past two years, and they've gone on to win four playoff games afterward. They've been here before.
Regardless of their record, the Eagles are in a different place offensively right now. After a strong opening week against Alcovy, Chavis Griggs was held in check against Newton and neither of Eastside's other two running backs was effective either. The running game was simply shut down last week.
For the running game to improve, the passing game must do its part. Cameron Boyd played well in the opener but struggled against Newton's defense. The running and passing games need each other to be effective. Alex Smith is sidelined for the next six games leaving Eastside without one of its most potent weapons. The Eagles did get sophomore Jamondi Smith back against Newton and he should be better this week after shaking off the first-game rust. Jamondi Smith is Eastside's most explosive back, even more so than Alex Smith. But he lacks the experience Griggs and Alex Smith have so he'll continue to work his way into the offense. Freshman Nick Broadwater is another option in the running game, but coaches may be reluctant to take away chances from either Griggs or Jamondi Smith.
Locust Grove could struggle. The Wildcats are reeling from the death of one of their players last month, and it's anyone's guess whether the relatively new program will be able to shake it off and be able to compete this year. Eastside handled them rather easily last year, and ,with a loss still fresh on their minds, the Eagles will be ready. Not only that, but during the last four years, the Eagles have lost back-to-back games just once. Ironically that came last year in Boyd's only start prior to becoming the starter.
Defensively the Eagles are too good to let Locust Grove score enough to win this game. Even a fully prepared Wildcat team would have trouble scoring tonight. Sheldon Rankins and Shaquille Huff continue to lead the defense with Blake Rouse and company behind them making plays. They've given up a touchdown in each the first two games, but it took nearly 60 plays for Newton to finally score last week.
The defense is strong but it can't continue to play that many downs. Eastside's offense - as it's been the past few years - is the question mark. This is, however, the time of year things begin to click. The offensive line needs more experience together which is another reason the Eagles must keep the offense on the field tonight. Talking to Griggs this week, he mentioned what made Git Aiken so good. It was Aiken's patience and ability to wait for the offensive line to develop the play before he picked his gap. Aiken was the master at finding that crease then turning upfield. Griggs hasn't been in the system as long so he is still trying to harness that patience. That's a key component to Eastside's zone running game. Just ask Carrolton.
Eastside should rebound with a big effort. The Eagles are motivated to go undefeated in region play and that goal starts tonight. That's why last week's loss won't linger. As Eastside coach Rick Hurst said after the loss, his team has bigger and better things ahead.
So far Newton has been a relatively one-dimensional team. Led by a frenetic defense, the Rams have yet to give up a touchdown in their two wins to open the season. Tonight they look to find some offensive continuity when they visit Northview in their last tuneup game before region play begins next week.
On paper, this is a game the Rams should win. They pounded Northview at home 37-7 last year and probably could have won by a larger margin as they overmatched the Titans in every facet of the game. But that was last year's team and this is a new group.
One of the new faces on offense is running back Javonte Williams. In each of the first two games, he's scored a rushing touchdown, including the game winner against Eastside. His other was an 83-yard scamper against Shiloh in Newton's opener. Williams has shown the big-play speed typically showcased by a Newton back but can also pick up the tough yards. He'll split time with BJ Reid who is also off to a nice start. Darius Dean is Newton's third back and also brings edge-clearing speed as a member of the Rams Class AAAAA state champion 4x100 meter relay team.
The running game hasn't been the problem. It's the passing game that has coaches concerned. First-year quarterback Gmatreian Brown is off to a rough start and the passing game has yet to click. Part of that has to do with facing Eastside's defense last week, and part of it is lack of repetitions. Last week in particular, Brown struggled to find a rhythm. He threw two bad interceptions but caught a break on the last one as a pass interference call negated the pick. Still, Brown is trying to find a go-to receiver and he's been slow to pick up reads early on.
Brown's best option is Deshawn McKenzie. In two games, McKenzie is Newton's leading receiver. He has shown the ability to make catches in traffic and is a relatively big target with good speed. Once he and Brown do start to click, the two could evolve into a lethal tandem. The Rams will still look to maintain about a 60-40 run to pass ratio thus putting an even larger premium on Brown's ability to read defenses.
Fortunately for Brown and the Rams, the defense has played well early on. Against Eastside, Newton held the Eagles to a three-and-out on three of their last four possessions, deep in their own territory when the game was on the line. Kingsley Ejike, Tyrique Brown and Antonio Williams are the catalysts and each bring speed and power to their respective positions. That's really where Newton's excels - in the speed rush game. Save for a dropped interception by Antonio Williams that would have been a sure touchdown last week, the defense has played essentially error free and has yet to give up a big play.
The other aspect Newton will look to continue to build upon is special teams. In both the kicking and punt block games, Newton's special teams are a legitimate weapon. Northview will have its hands full when dropping back to punt. Every one will be an adventure. Case in point, against Eastside it seemed like a matter of time before Newton would come through with a punt block. Late in the fourth quarter, the Rams did block a punt and recovered it in the end zone for a safety. The kicking game has been solid too. Zack Sullivan did yeoman's work last week, consistently pinning Eastside inside its own 20 in the second half. Newton won the field position battle throughout the fourth quarter, and when you do that enough, eventually good things happen.
Tonight's game is important from the standpoint that Newton needs a win in order to keep building momentum. A loss would be a setback after two solid games, especially with Newnan on the horizon. The Rams went down and snatched a win from the Cougars after a spirited second-half rally - a feat rarely pulled off against such a quality opponent.