COVINGTON, Ga. — As Thanksgiving Day gives way to Black Friday, Eastside fans are only interested in seeing green.
The fourth-ranked Eagles started their Thanksgiving the way every GHSA football team wants to start it — on the practice field, preparing for another playoff game.
Actually, Eastside started the day around the breakfast table, thanks to the benevolence and culinary expertise of the Eastside Touchdown Club which served the team breakfast at 8 a.m. Thursday morning before the Eagles hit the practice field for the last time of the week, but hopefully not the last time of the season.
“We had pancakes, sausage, sausage balls, the works,” Eastside coach Troy Hoff said. “Thursday was a tempoed practice, but I think we handled it well with the meal. I don’t think I saw anyone throwing up on the practice field.”
What we have seen throughout the 2018 season is an Eastside football team that has grown up from a squad with lots of question marks, particularly in the trenches on defense and offense, to the No. 4 team in Class AAAA and a big upset away from a semifinals appearance.
It would definitely be an upset.
Though a top 5 team in the state, oddsmakers have Eastside as a 24 point underdog to defending state champion Blessed Trinity. But as has been the case with Eastside for pretty much the entire season, it’s all business, no fear and no intimidation as Hoff says his squad has fully embraced a “why not us” approach.
That much could be seen as Eastside bounced around with ease during the Thanksgiving Morning praand looked like they belonged in this situation, despite the program not having been this deep in the playoffs since making the class AAA semifinals back in 2009 when the Eagles narrowly lost 21-14 to Peach County.
Meanwhile, Blessed Trinity hasn’t missed the postseason since 2010 and have won region championships every year except one since 2013. Hoff says the respect is most certainly there, but intimidation, not so much.
“They’re ready to go,” Hoff said. “They’re anxious. Like we’ve said all year long, they know they’re in for a great challenge. They’re going to play a great football team that has a tremendous program. (Blessed Trinity) is a well coached team that executes at a high level, and they’ve got great players. So our guys are up for the challenge. Like I said after last week, there’s eight of us left. Why not us? That’s what we’ve been saying.”
Eastside got here by outlasting Burke County — another program with state championship pedigree — in a 42-35 shootout last week in a game that had to be played at Social Circle High School’s stadium due to rain-soaked conditions at Sharp Stadium.
Sharp Stadium is now dry and Hoff said the field may be in the best condition its been in all season. Which means Eastside will have a true home field advantage as it faces their stiffest challenge of the season with a team that runs it just as much as Burke County likes to, just in a different way.
“It’s night and day, pretty much,” Hoff said. “With Burke, there’s a lot of the jet game and option game off the zone scheme, and this week with Blessed Trinity, it’s a power gap scheme. They’re well-coached, and their schemes match their personnel really well. It’s a physical offense. People discredit the fact that they run the ball and they’re smash mouth, but they’re very efficient in the passing game. But the mission is definitely to stop the run first.”
An Eastside win would mark the first win against a top-ranked team in program history. It would also set up a semifinals matchup between either Cairo or Troup next week.
But first things first. Let’s break down this week’s quarterfinals clash.
The Matchup: No. 1 Blessed Trinity Titans (12-0) at No. 4 Eastside Eagles (12-0). One of these teams will not only go home for the season, but will go home with their first loss since the 2017 campaign. That’s just how good both of these squads have been this year. Blessed Trinity has only been contested twice this season — a 10-7 squeak-out win against Marist — which is also still alive in the Class AAAA playoffs — and an overtime win against Flowery Branch. Eastside’s pulled out several close games in wins against Newton, Woodward Academy and, of course, Burke County last week. The game will be seen by many as a matchup between an upstart “David” against an established “Goliath” in Blessed Trinity.
The When and Where: Friday Nov. 23, 7:30 p.m. at Sharp Stadium, Covington.
The Key Players: Start in the trenches when you’re looking at Blessed Trinity. Although 6-foot-2, 217-pound senior tailback Steele Chambers and his 1,221 yards and 20 touchdowns while averaging 7.3 yards per carry is a definite load to bring down — and he has the Power Five offers from the likes of Ohio State, Alabama, Auburn and Clemson to prove his worth — he’s running behind a solid offensive line that also protects senior quarterback Jake Smith well. Smith’s passing numbers aren’t gaudy, but as Hoff alluded to, he’s an efficient, 64 percent passer who’s thrown for 1,523 yards, 17 touchdowns and just one interception.
Ryan Davis (17.5 yards per catch and seven touchdown receptions) has been the Titans’ big-play guy when Smith throws it. But seven other receivers have caught touchdown passes this season, signaling Blessed Trinity’s penchant for distributing the wealth widely in the passing game.
Defensively, 6-foot-1, 220-pound linebacker — and 4-star prospect — JD Bertrand is the one to watch. Bertrand just committed to Notre Dame Monday after initially pledging to Georgia. With 78 total tackles, 11.5 for loss and four quarterback sacks, he leads an aggressive Titan defense that’s surrendering only 9.6 points per game.
For Eastside, running back Taylor Carter has been playing on another level, and his offensive line — undersized and starting a freshman in former Cousins Middle standout, James Amos — keeps on answering the call, no matter who they’re facing. Coach Hoff challenged his team by reminding it that it’s built to “run and hit, to play fast and physical,” regardless of the caliber of opponent.
Quarterback Noah Cook is 205 passing yards away from cracking the 2,000-yard mark. His 24 touchdowns to just three interceptions has helped contribute to his 132.5 quarterback rating. He’s also rushed for 350 yards and five scores. Sophomore Terrence Reid is knocking on 500 rushing yards for the season even as he’s bowled people over with his physical style. And players like Jerry Mays, Colby Shivers, Antavious Cobb and Jamari Brown have all shown big-play flashes in the passing game.
Eastside wins…If it can neutralize Blessed Trinity’s attempts to be a balanced, mix-it-up offense by stopping the run and making the Titans one dimensional. Also, the Eagles will need to establish its own run game, and continue finding ways to get their playmakers into space on the outside. Teams with athleticism (Woodward Academy) have been able to move the ball with some success against the Titans.
Blessed Trinity wins…If it can flex its muscles in the ground game, control the clock and sort of muck it up in the trenches. Defensively, they’ll try to press Eastside into making mistakes. There were a few ball security issues for the Eagles last week. If Blessed Trinity can force a couple of turnovers, it won’d bode well for Eastside. The Titans may not always look “explosive” on offense, but they know how to methodically pick you apart, and wear you down defensively.
The Prediction: Blessed Trinity has only been truly tested twice this season — in an overtime win against Flowery Branch, and in a 10-7 slugfest win against Marist in what was a rematch of last year’s Class AAAA state championship game. And Hoff’s mantra has always been, “push a team to the fourth quarter and let’s see what happens.” The Eagles are a 24-point underdog, but we believe they’ll put up a much better fight than that. In fact, don’t be surprised if it does go down to the wire. It’s hard to pick against Eastside, but we think the Titans may make one or two more plays, perhaps off of a turnover, that will make the difference. (We won’t be mad if we’re wrong, though). Score: Blessed Trinity 31, Eastside 24.
What’s Next: The winner of this game will move on to the semifinals to play the winner of Cairo and Troup.