By Michael Pope
Covington, GA – The Eastside magic continues.
The No. 4 Eastside Eagles triumphantly made their way through the first round of the GHSA Class AAAA state playoffs with a 41-23 win over the Hardaway Hawks at Sharp Stadium Friday night.
Senior running back Taylor Carter grinded out 82 rushing yards on a 11 carries with two touchdowns to complement junior quarterback Noah Cook’s solid, all-around performance, going 12-of-19 for 222 yards passing and one passing touchdown while also gaining 57 yards on the ground on nine carries and a score.
The Eagles’ high-powered offense got the scoring started early and would not look back. It only took four plays for the Eagles to drive down the field 65 yards and get on the board for the game’s first score.
Running back Taylor Carter capped off Eastside’s opening drive with a 15-yard run that saw him throw a devastating stiff-arm to a would-be tackler before diving across the goal line. This quick 7-0 lead gave Eastside an early boost that served as a pace-setter for the duration of the game against a salty Hardaway squad.
The Eagles would force a quick three and out on the ensuing drive and follow up their opening touchdown with a field goal from kicker Kade Mote.
The Hawks tried to get their offense going on their second drive of the game but Eastside defensive end, Jaylen Atlow intercepted a pass that was tipped and popped straight up into the air.
Atlow’s pick would give the Eagles great field position that would lead to another Mote field goal, giving Eastside a 13-0 lead.
The third time was the charm for the Hardaway offense as it only took three plays for the Hawks on their third drive of the game to add a quick touchdown of their own. It happened when running back Ja’Ron Early used a five-yard score to cap off the drive, trimming the Eagles lead to 13-7.
This would get the Hawks back into the game, but the Eagles had some quick magic of their own up their sleeve.
Eastside followed the Hawks’ drive with a three-play scoring march of its own that was highlighted by a 17-yard touchdown catch by Jerry Mays from Noah Cook. The play extended their lead to 20-7. in the second quarter.
The Hawks would kick a field goal on their following drive and would stop the Eagles on fourth down to set up a huge opportunity. With a 20-10 score and the ball, the Hardaway had a great shot at making it a one score game heading into the half.
The Eagles would stifle any chance of that happening, though, as Atlow came up with another interception — his second of the game — and returned it to the Hawks’ 8-yard line. A penalty on the Hawks on the play would give the Eagles 1st and goal from the 4-yard line, which would lead to a touchdown run by Carter, giving the Eagles a 27-10 lead.
Atlow added on three more sacks with his two-interception performance and was very pleased with the way he played, though he showed humility when talking about his big night.
“It was my first playoff game, so all the energy just fueled me,” Atlow said. “I’ve got great teammates and coaches, and they just put me in the right places. I’m just blessed.”
The Hawks would end the first half with a touchdown score of their own, and the halftime break would see them in striking distance, trailing by a score of 27-17. They would start the second half like they ended the first with a touchdown, but missed the PAT, chopping down Eastside’s lead to 27-23.
This would be the last time the Hawks would get on the board, and the Eagles would cap on two more scores by way of touchdown runs from Carter and Cook.
Cook’s touchdown run was the last score of the game, but this particular scoring drive was highlighted by a fake punt run for 25 yards by Carter. It was a gutsy call on fourth down, but head coach Troy Hoff said field position and the Hawks’ set up on the punt ultimately led to the call.
“We got the look we wanted, we had good field position, where even if we don’t get it, they still have to go 60-plus yards,” said Hoff. “They saw it, they got the call, he had the green light if it was good, and they executed it well.”
Overall, this was a very balanced game on offense, defense, and special teams for the Eagles, and they will need to replicate their efforts against Burke County (8-3) in the next round of the Class AAAA playoffs if they hope to continue to advance.
Hoff expects nothing less from his team, knowing next week will be just as tough as their first round matchup.
“We expect a true Burke County team to come to town, and they’re a good football program. Always have been,” said Hoff. “At this point and time, everyone is good and they’re going to be ready.”
The Eagles (11-0) will host Burke County at Sharp Stadium in the second round of the AAAA playoffs next Friday at 7:30 p.m