COVINGTON, Ga. — We’ve been talking so much about Eastside’s domination lately, and for good reason, that one stat that paints a picture of unfinished business for the Eagles has gone largely unmentioned.
Eastside coach Troy Hoff is 0-3 as head coach in playoff games or games with immediate playoff implications. Let’s explain:
Eastside lost to Baldwin, 21-16 in the first round of last year’s playoffs, while hosting as the No. 2 seed in Region 4-AAAA. Then in 2016, the Eagles dropped a 24-17 first round game to an upstart Spalding squad that advanced to the quarterfinals.
That may have arguably been one of the most talented Eastside squads on paper in recent memory, but injuries had pretty much decimated the roster by the time the postseason showed up.
The year before that, back when Region 4-AAAA was divided into subregions, Eastside fell 20-14 in a rematch game against Griffin (the Eagles had defeated Griffin 37-12 in the regular season) that was actually a region play-in game to decide which of the two teams would advance to the postseason.
So it’s no wonder why, even on Thursday afternoon in a walk-throughish practice inside the Eastside gym while being presented with a brand new Newton Cup for sweeping Alcovy and Newton, and receiving accolades for their offensive line, that Hoff and his entire coaching staff had their game faces on.
Since the beginning of the season, Hoff has preached a one-game-at-a-time, business-like approach to his team. And it’s bought in in a major way. You can see the chip on their shoulders while they play. You can hear it in postgame interviews.
Quarterback Noah Cook even went so far as to say the words “state championship” aren’t even being discussed with much regularity, despite Eastside sporting a No. 4 state ranking and perfect, 10-0 record.
It’s all about the next one. And for Eastside, winning the next one against Hardaway will give Hoff his first one — as in first playoff win as a head coach, and a chance to take one step closer to Georgia high school football’s ultimate prize.
But first thing’s first. Here’s a breakdown of tonight’s action with Hardaway.
The Matchup: Hardaway Hawks (6-4) at No. 4 Eastside Eagles (10-0). Throw out all the Region records and non-Region stuff here. It’s a new season, and the one that counts most for the ultimate prize. Hardaway is riding high from its 15-14 win Saturday over Westover that qualified them to make the trek from Columbus to Covington to take on the undefeated Eagles who look to be just as locked in as ever.
The When and Where: Friday Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m. at Sharp Stadium, Covington.
The Key Players: Hardaway’s Ja’Ron Early has rushed for 100 or more yards in seven of his 10 games, and he was just four yards away from that mark in the Hawks’ playoff-clinching victory against Westover. That 96-yard performance helped him eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, giving the Hawks back-to-back seasons with tailbacks in the 1,000-yard club. Early’s a 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior who may not have top-end speed, but he makes up for it with his vision, the velocity with which he hits holes and his toughness between the tackles. Junior Tahjee Hudson is his backfield complement, with close to 300 yards rushing and four scores.
Hardaway doesn’t throw it much, but quarterback Dominique Ford has thrown for 748 yards and seven touchdowns while completing passes at a 53 percent clip. Defensively, the Hawks are stout.
There’s Keevaughn Peterson who’s a man on the defensive line with 18 tackles for losses and 12.5 quarterback sacks. He’s one of four Hawks defenders who have double-digit TFLs. Senior Jordan Parker has 6.5 sacks and 6-foot-2, 215-pound linebacker Amen Ellis leads the team in tackles with 81 total stops.
For Eastside, it’s arguable that the Eagles’ offense is playing its best football of the season at just the right time. That’s happening because of balance. We’ve gushed about Eastside’s rushing attack all season — the same rushing attack that’s three 300-yard plus performances, including 426 rushing yards against Henry County a couple of weeks ago.
But throw in an ever-evolving, ever-improving Noah Cook at quarterback, and it has become tough to pin down exactly how Eastside will choose to attack defenses.
Cook is completing almost 70 percent of his passes while throwing for 1,581 yards and tossing 23 touchdown passes to just three interceptions. But where he’s taken it to the next level is with his legs.
The junior signal caller has 293 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns while averaging 9.5 yards per carry. He doesn’t run it much, but he does it well enough and frequently enough to keep defenses from keying solely on Eastside’s tailbacks in RPO action.
Hardaway wins…If it can control the clock and string together long drives, while mucking up the tempo of the game offensively, and being a ball-hawking, opportunistic unit defensively that forces a couple of turnovers. The offensive firepower isn’t there for the Hawks, so it will need a lot of field position help from its defense and special teams in order to give them a chance.
Eastside wins…If it hits the Hawks in the mouth early and often — see the first quarter of the Hampton game — and takes away, before halftime, any hopes of the Hawks’ having a chance to hang around for four quarters.
The Prediction: I wouldn’t be surprised to see stalemate moments in this game, particularly early on, as Hardaway’s defense will most certainly come to play. But Eastside’s depth at tailback and the saltiness of its offensive line and defensive front seven should start making things pretty tough for the Hawks by the middle part of the second quarter. Eastside will pull away for its Score: Eastside 42, Henry County 20.
What's Next: The winner of tonight's game will advance to the second round to take on the winner of Burke County vs. Howard next Friday. If Eastside wins, it will host again next week.