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PREP FOOTBALL: No. 8 Eastside calm, confident heading to Woodward Academy
Taylor Carter
Eastside running back Taylor Carter said he's put last year's Woodward Academy game and the tough fumble call made against him behind him, and will lead the No. 8 Eagles' rushing attack in Friday's crucial Region 4-AAAA clash against the War Eagles. -photo by Anthony Banks

Eastside at Woodward Academy 2017 Highlight

WATCH: Eastside's Brayden Harper throws a touchdown strike in last year's game at Woodward Academy. -video courtesy of NHFS Newtwork

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COVINGTON, Ga. — Troy Hoff is well aware of the task before his eighth-ranked Eastside Eagles when they travel to College Park for a 7:30 p.m. Region 4-AAAA battle with No. 10 Woodward Academy Friday night. 

For all intents and purposes, this game — just like the previous two — will likely decided who will win the region crown. A win will give either Eastside (5-0, 2-0) or Woodward (3-2, 2-0) pole position in the region race with both teams still having to play Salem. 

What’s more for Eastside, though, is the potential for a little revenge factor to arise in this year’s game. It doesn’t take many chats with Eastside players to know that 356 days after the 28-20 loss to Woodward — a defeat aided by a controversy fumble call on a Taylor Carter carry near the red zone late in the fourth quarter — it still feels like a victory that got away. 

That said, Hoff said his squad has done a solid job in keeping the business-like approach in preparation that’s helped the Eagles to its best start to a season through five games since the 2008 squad that finished 11-2 and went three rounds deep into the Class AAA state playoffs. 

“The intensity level is definitely up, but we’re back into a normal work week flow,” Hoff said. “It’s back to a four-day work week without coming off a bye. They’ve showed good energy, but it’s been business as usual. They’ve done a great job of managing the week.” 

That includes Carter doing his best job at downplaying the significance of that ill-fated carry and call from last year’s game. 

“It’s nothing personal,” Carter said. “I let it go, and I’m still working on my game as it is.” 

And the work has been paying off royally. 

The senior tailback has had some electric moments through his first five games, rushing for 479 yards on 63 carries, averaging 7.6 yards per touch and scoring seven rushing touchdowns — all team-leading stats. He’s also caught nine balls and has a receiving score to his credit. 

Carter is more interested in talking about the team approach to the Woodward game, rather than focusing on his individual accomplishments. And from what he’s observed, he feels his team is ready to make amends with last season. 

“I can say that we’re in a better position for this game than we were last year,” Carter said. “Mentally throughout this whole week, we’ve been staying on top of things. Showing up to practice early. Making sure assignments are right. It’s been good.” 

Assignment No. 1 for Eastside defensively is “stopping No. 8,” in Carter’s words. That jersey number refers to Woodward senior tailback Tahj Gary. The 5-foot-9, 212 pound speedster is averaging a whopping 13.2 yards per carry with six scores. In addition to his team-leading 449 rushing yards, Gary also heads the team in catches (12) and receiving yards (239) while tied with Parker Kahlert for the team lead of three receiving scores. 

Woodward Academy senior running back Tahj Gary torched Eastside for 189 rushing yards on 25 carries and two scores in last year's 28-20 Woodward win. -file photo

“He’s definitely the most important threat to us defensively,” Carter said. “Same as last year. That’s the main person we’re making sure we cover and make sure we have our eyes on, come Friday.” 

That doesn’t mean the War Eagles are otherwise void of playmakers. Junior quarterback, Mike Wright is a true dual threat who has 635 passing yards, 309 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns. Senior, Cross Patton has also proven himself a solid short yardage back with his five rushing scores. 

“They’re extremely explosive offensively,” Hoff said. “Of course you’ve got Tahj, but that quarterback’s a good player too. They’ve got a couple of other running backs and receivers they can get the ball too, and they provide a defense with a lot of conflicts at times with personnel.” 

But it could be Woodward’s penchant for old school football that may prove to be the trickiest part of defending them. 

“Another thing that’s different about them is they’ll play old school football,” Hoff said. “They’ll line up with a tight end and an H-back and come downhill at you. So that’s different. We don’t see that a lot anymore. It’s definitely not the norm from week to week.” 

Some may be tempted to look over Woodward a bit, while taking note of their two early losses. But those defeats came at the hands of Class AAAA No. 1 Blessed Trinity and Class AAA No. 7 Westminster — not exactly slouch teams. 

If there’s an achilles heel for Woodward, it may be its young defense which gave up lots of points and yards in its first three games, but have rebounded nicely by holding its last two opponents — Henry County and Druid Hills to a combined 14 points. 

“Defensively they’re very young,” Hoff said. “But they’ve been battle tested with those big games early, and you can tell they’re starting to play really well. We don’t look at them as being that young anymore.” 

Other than that, Hoff believes the biggest key for his team will be refraining from getting too juiced up in a game he knows his team wants to win badly. 

“When you know you’re in a big game against an opponent, you don’t want to go out and try to do too much,” Hoff said. “You go out and play your game and do the things that’s gotten you to this point. That’s something we’ve talked about. Every play doesn’t have to be a spectacular play. But we’ve already been in some big games and some tight games. Our older guys have been in that atmosphere before. I’m comfortable with where we’re at.” 

So is Eastside defensive back Antavious Cobb. But he still didn’t bite his tongue about the urgency of this game. 

“It’s been a good practice vibe this week,” Cobb said. “I think we’re ready. We want it bad. We know we’ve gotta have this game. It’s a must for us to win it.” 

Friday's game will be streamed live by the NFHS network.  You can access the link to the game's live stream here.

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