SOCIAL CIRCLE, Ga. — In a game where both offenses traded haymakers all night, Eastside head coach, Troy Hoff turned out to be a bit of a prophet regarding his defense.
“I told our guys, all we need is one stop,” Hoff said. “And we’re gonna get it.”
Turns out he was right, as it was the Eastside defense that threw the knockout blow, helping the fourth-ranked Eagles defeat Burke County 42-35 in the second round of the Class AAAA playoffs Friday night at Social Circle stadium.
On a 4th-and-7 play against a Burke County offense that was running the ball at will at times and needing one score to tie the game deep in the fourth quarter, it was Eastside linebackers Jamari Brundage and Jordan Rogers who, perhaps, made the play of the night, causing Hoff’s words to ring true.
Burke County quarterback Juanya Dove elected to run into the teeth of the Eagles’ defense on a keeper, and Brundage and Rogers sandwiched him, stopping him short of the first down marker.
“I mean, this whole week, we knew (Dove) was the playmaker, and we had to make plays when we needed to,” Brundage said. “That’s a big part of the game. Defense makes plays, and defense wins championships.”
Hoff said he was proud of the wherewithal involved in his two linebackers making that play in a scheme that was admittedly tough to grasp at times.
“The thing with it is, it’s hard because they have so many options,” Hoff said. “In that play, with the down and distance being a little longer, we were expecting either the jet, which hurt us all night, because, I don’t want to say they get you out-flanked, but you can’t cheat it, and you can’t roll down to it, because they have the option off of it, and because they’ve got a guy who ran for 900 yards this season behind it.
“You’ve just gotta play good defense and play disciplined football, which our guys did there.”
With the ball, Eastside’s Taylor Carter iced things with a big 46-yard pickup that pushed him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season and allowed Eastside to run the rest of the clock out, dashing any Burke County comeback hopes.
Eastside shrugged off Burke County’s 394 yards rushing — Leon McGee got 113 of those on 18 carries — while Carter put up 127 yards on 14 carries and three touchdowns to pace the Eagles in the win.
Afterwards, Eastside coach Troy Hoff gave glowing reviews of Carter’s performance.
“He’s a warrior,” Hoff said. “I think I posted on Twitter, you know, week 12. He power cleans 295 (pounds), squats 495, 500 and benches 315. That’s just how he works. He’s a driven young man and an ultimate competitor, and that feeds the other ones. He’s a great leader. He doesn’t say much, but the way he goes, and the way he he approaches his business, that says a lot to everybody else.”
Junior quarterback, Noah Cook added 231 yards on 9-of-13 passing, with three passing touchdowns for Eastside, and expressed the unflappable confidence one would expect from a top-5 ranked, playoff team’s signal caller.
“You know, we just keep going 1-0 every week,” Cook said. “(Burke County) was a phenomenal ball team, but the way we keep coming out and working hard every week at practice, it just prepares us for these moments.”
At the start, it seemed to take Eastside a little bit to get used to Burke County’s option attack, as the Bears started fast with Dove engineering a punishing, 12-play, 80-yard march, all rushing plays except for a 7-yard pass he completed to Renzai Cobb. In the end it was McGhee taking the handoff on a trap play and dashing in for an 11-yard score with 7:38 left in the first quarter.
Eastside’s first drive in response was not good, but it could’ve been disastrous. Carter and Cook fumbled the shotgun handoff exchange, but fell on it for a loss of 18 instead of what could’ve easily been a Burke County scoop-and-score.
After an Eagles punt, the Bears started what appeared to be the makings of another long scoring drive, but it stalled out at the Eastside 42-yard line when Eagles linebacker Quincy Cullins came up with a sack of quarterback Michael Johnson for a loss of seven. The negative play forced a Burke County punt, which gave Eastside’s offense a chance to get back to work.
This time, the Eagles would even things up as Cook found Jamari Brown over the middle for a 44 yard touchdown pass. This was set up by a 21-yard completion to Carter two plays earlier. The score knotted things at 7-7 with 17 seconds left in the first quarter.
Burke County wasted no time jumping back in front, and it did so in similar fashion as its first scoring drive. McGhee put the Bears on top, 14-7 when he leaped over the pile on a 3rd-and-goal play on the Eastside 1-yard line with just over nine minutes before the half.
It was Eastside’s turn to answer. It happened when Eastside went for it on 4th down. Carter took the shotgun snap in the wildcat formation and pushed his way in from three yards to tie things up at 14 with 6:18 left before halftime.
The Eagles’ defense seemed to begin figuring out Burke County’s zone option attack, as it came up with a huge three-and-out on the Bears’ ensuing drive. Once Eastside’s offense retained possession, Cook connected with Jeff Haynes on a 34-yard lofter that found the senior behind two Bear defenders in the back of the end zone. The touchdown pass gave Eastside its first lead of the game at 21-14 with 1:19 left before the break.
Eastside’s score before the half was clutch because the Eagles got the ball back for the third quarter, and Hoff’s squad picked up where it left off, as Carter capped off a five-play, 64-yard drive with a three-yard touchdown plunge, out of the wildcat.
The score pushed Eastside’s lead to 28-14 with less than two minutes gone by in the third.
After Eastside survived a fourth down attempt, thanks to a dropped pass from Dove that, if caught, would’ve scored, the Eagles took over on downs at their own 19. But they gifted it right back to the Bears when a fumbled snap was scooped up by Artez Grubbs and returned for a 19-yard touchdown, chopping the lead to 28-21.
The turnover flipped momentum as Burke County, after forcing an Eastside 3-and-out, tied things up again when Demian Williams took a beautifully executed option pitch and darted down the sideline for a 47-yard score.
Eastside immediately struck back, turning a 3-play drive into points with Carter’s 2-yard touchdown plunge. The score was set up by Cook connecting with Terrence Reid on a screen pass which the sophomore caught on the outside before turning toward the sideline and rumbling 51 yards. Carter’s touchdown gave Eastside a 35-28 lead with 2:45 left in the third.
The Eastside defense snagged a takeaway of its own when Dove’s option pitch went slightly behind the intended ball carrier, and Antavious Cobb slid on top of the football before it rolled out of bounds. Three plays later, Cook scampered in from five yards to stretch Eastside’s lead back to two scores.
The see-saw battle continued with Dove hooking up with tight end, Jeron Patterson, who was wide open in the back of the end zone, for an 18-yard scoring strike, a play which would eventually produce the final score.
The loss ended Burke County’s season at 8-4, while Eastside (12-0) will host top-ranked Blessed Trinity next Friday at Sharp Stadium.
And although Hoff knows much will be made of Eastside coming up against a Class AAAA juggernaut that’s won five out of its last six region championships, and a Class AAAA state title last year, the Eagles’ coach believes there’s no reason to be intimidated by anyone at this point in the season.
“There’s eight teams left now,” Hoff said. “Everybody’s good. Everybody’s good during this round. We know we’ve got a great opportunity to play one of the best teams in the state. And we know who they are and how good they’ve been. They’ve done a great job for a long time. It’ll be a great challenge, but I’m just glad we’re still alive.”