Eastside travels to Henry County for its season finale and the Eagles have a very simple goal. Win. If they do, they’ll make a return trip to the Class AAA playoffs for an unprecedented fourth straight year. But it won’t be easy.
The Warhawks come into tonight’s game with a lot on the line as well. At 5-2 in region play, Henry County is tied for third but owns the tiebreaker over Drew who they beat last week. A loss to Eastside combined with a Drew win would knock the Warhawks to a tie for fourth with the Eagles and knock them out of the playoffs. Drew plays lowly Locust Grove and should handle them
If the Eagles lose, they’re done. By virtue of losses to Stockbridge, Sandy Creek and Drew, the Eagles have no more room for error. In other words, both teams need to win to get in.
On paper, the two teams seem to match up well. Henry County scores 21 points per game while giving up 13 while the Eagles score 19 and give up 12. Those numbers are a bit misleading though. Eastside scored 36 points against Eagles Landing last week to inflate those stats. Take out that game and Eastside is scoring 17 points per contest. Of course the same could be said about Henry County. They put up 45 points against Eagles Landing in week eight.
Eastside turns to sophomore Demario Terrell at quarterback for a second straight week. Terrell looked good in his first career start last week, completing 10 of 15 passes for 178 and three touchdowns against no interceptions. But that was against Eagles Landing’s porous defense. Henry County poses a much tougher challenge.
The Eagles won last year’s game 21-14. But much has changed since then. This year’s offense has been less effective in both the pass and the run. While Terrell sparked the passing game last week, the running game was still mediocre at best. As a team, the Eagles amassed just 115 yards on 21 carries against the Golden Eagles.
Still, Eastside averages a solid 4.7 yards per carry as a team for the year. The problem has been down and distance. When Eastside has struggled, they haven’t been able to sustain drives. Part of that has to do with gains or rather no-gains on first and second downs. When the Eagles’ offense is clicking it’s facing short yardage on second and third downs. In the Eagles’ three-game losing streak, which they snapped last week, they faced too many third-and-long situations. With an ineffective passing game, it translated to several three-and-outs. That puts a strain on the defense.
Defensively the Eagles overcame the loss of All-State defensive end Sheldon Rankins last week thanks to the play of Antonius Sims, Shaquille Huff and Marquise Heard. Making his first start at defensive end, Heard played extremely well. He had two sacks, three tackles for a loss and seven tackles overall to help the Eagles shut out Eagles Landing. Despite his small stature, especially compared to Rankins’ 6-foot-3, 255-pound frame, Heard plays with a reckless abandon. While Rankins’ loss hurts, Heard and the rest of Eastside’s defense didn’t miss a beat against the offensively-challenged Golden Eagles.
Much like the offense will face a different challenge, the defense also faces a tougher opponent. Henry County can hurt teams with the run and the pass. When Eastside has struggled on defense, it’s been in the passing game or in the second level. Of the four big plays they gave up during their losing streak, two of them came in the passing game and two came once a running back made it past the defensive line. The Eagles must contain the big play much like they did against Eagles Landing. But even the Golden Eagles were able to break off a long run before ultimately coming up short of scoring.
The key to tonight’s game will be how well Terrell handles pressure. He won’t find receivers running wide open all night like he did against Eagles Landing. His best friend will be the running game. When the Eagles were able to run the ball last week, it opened up the passing game as it should. Look for the Eagles to pound the ball on the ground a lot tonight in an attempt to give Terrell some passing lanes and relieve some pressure. Running the ball will also keep the defense fresh. That’s been a major problem in all of Eastside’s losses. The lack of offense has led to extended minutes for the defense. In all but the Stockbridge loss, the defense was gassed at the end of the game when each was decided. The Eagles lost to Newton, Sandy Creek and Drew on touchdowns late in the fourth quarter.
Something else to keep in mind is Eastside’s streak of making the postseason. In each of Rick Hurst’s first six years as head coach, the Eagles improved or maintained their success. He took the Eagles to the playoffs for the first time in 2008 and hasn’t missed the postseason since.
At the beginning of the season, a fourth consecutive playoff berth seemed more like a matter of what seed rather than if. That’s all changed. For the first time in that span the Eagles face the prospect of sitting at home in week 11 while 32 other teams in Class AAA play on. Don’t think that isn’t something they aren’t thinking about.