COVINGTON, Ga. — At times it got a little hairy, but that’s what playoff football is all about, right?
Nevertheless, Eastside’s 42-23 win over a pesky Hardaway squad in the first round of the Class AAAA state playoffs provided coach Troy Hoff his first playoff win as the Eagles’ head coach.
Here are the five things we learned from Eastside’s 11th straight win.
1. The historic season continues. We’ve covered enough about the history this Eagles team has made this season, but the fact of the matter is, the region championship, the undefeated regular season and even the Newton Cup all probably feels a lot better than it would have had the season ended abruptly the first round of the playoffs. The season wouldn’t have necessarily been disregarded had they lost this game, but the farther this team goes, the more this team will go down in history. They were tested at quite a few moments against an athletic Hardaway squad — especially by the Hawks’ defense — but taking care of business with an 18-point win at home in rugged field conditions is a good sign for Eastside as it moves on — a sign that the Eagles are ready for the bigger challenges a deep playoff run will, no doubt, throw at them.
2. Jaylen Atlow came up big for the Eagles. As if the multiple sacks weren’t enough, Atlow also hauled in two interceptions in key moments to kill two different spurts of momentum that the Hawks were starting to build upon. With the Hawks finding their stride on offense, they had a chance to cut the lead to three points, but a screen pass was knocked up into the air and picked off by Atlow, who set the Eagles up for another touchdown, keeping Hardaway out of reach. Atlow has shown signs of stellar play all season, but this was arguably his biggest game, which showed stellar timing as his team enters the win-or-go-home part of the season.
3. The rainy weather was no match for Taylor Carter. Playing a football game is already hard enough when you’re a running back that carries most of the load. Constantly taking hits eventually takes its toll on any player. However, when you add in cold, wet weather, it makes things even worse. However, Friday night, Carter played as if none of that mattered. He actually said he prefers running in the cold weather because it throws defenses off. Time and time again he was tested for runs that had little to no gain, but he prevailed many other times, scoring on huge runs, receptions and one-yard keepers. He even was at the center of a successful fake punt attempt that saw him take the direct snap for a first down to extend an Eagles drive.
4. Eastside was legitimately tested. Aside from — or even including — some of their games against teams such as Newton, Woodward Academy and Salem, Hardaway gave the Eagles one of their toughest fights of the season. Although Eastside never trailed in the game, they led by as much as 17 before the Hawks cut the deficit down to three at one point. Eastside stood tall and executed when it needed to most to put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter. It gave up some chunk plays on defense but made the stops when it mattered. The same could be said for the offense. They were stuffed on numerous rushing plays but made the first downs when they absolutely had to. That kind of resiliency will need to be on display as the opponents get tougher deeper into the playoffs.
5. Round two is set. With Newton out of the playoffs following its loss to West Forsyth, Eastside is the only remaining GHSA playoff team in the county. The Eagles will host their second-round game against Burke County (8-3) which defeated Howard in its first round game to advance. These two teams haven’t played any similar opponents, so it is hard to determine how they match up from just a glance. The Bears went 7-3 in the regular season, with losses to Benedictine, Ware County, and Baldwin.