COLLEGE PARK, Ga. — Give a little credit to divine intervention, perhaps.
Bryant Byrd and Dustin Morgan may say so, anyway.
With just under two minutes remaining in regulation and Eastside and Woodward Academy locked in a tie ballgame with the War Eagles driving for a potential go-ahead score, Byrd and Morgan — two starting offensive linemen for Eastside — could be found on the sideline, both down on one knee, heads together in prayer.
Seconds later, defensive back Jeffery Haynes stepped in front of Woodward quarterback Banks Snelling’s pass, snagged it, cut across field and darted for the end zone, pointing up to the sky with his index finger about 15 yards from the goal line.
At that point, it was 38-31 Eastside with 1:20 left in the fourth quarter. And thanks to a Colby Shivers sack on the final play of the game, that score was how it would end, as the eighth-ranked Eagles stayed undefeated, despite having to come back from 17 points down at halftime to do it.
But of all the people preoccupied with that 24-7 Woodward lead at halftime, the boys in green and white weren’t among them.
“No game’s ever ended at the half,” said Eastside coach Troy Hoff. “We’ve been known to come out and play strong second halves. We just told them to settle down and play football. It wasn’t anything miraculous or amazing we drew in the dirt. It was just fix some things assignment wise, clean up a few calls, go with looks we like, communicate and play fast. We knew we were gonna get the kick in the third quarter, so we told the offense go down and score. Let’s see what happens.”
And it’s that business-like approach that has helped Eastside climb to 6-0 for the first time in school history, while knocking off Woodward for the first time in the three years the two schools have been paired in Region 4-AAAA.
Eastside now has pole position in the region title race, while also removing the bitter taste of last year’s narrow loss to the War Eagles from their collective football palates.
For Taylor Carter, the taste of victory was sweet. The senior tailback unofficially finished with 96 rushing yards on 18 carries and a rushing touchdown. He also scored on a 63-yard reception from quarterback Noah Cook to chop the deficit down to a field goal early in the fourth quarter.
“It’s a very good feeling for us to come out of here with a win,” he said. “Like I say after every game and every week of practice, it starts with the o-line. They had a big game, and we struggled a little bit, but it was alright. And like I said before, I forgot about last year. That’s a whole other year, and we came out tonight and changed the energy.”
It was Woodward Academy that had control of the energy at the start, however.
On the opening kickoff, taking it and executing a lateral pass that sprung for a huge return that gave the War Eagles possession at the Eastside 48.
Two plays later, Woodward would find the end zone when Snelling hit Tahj Gary on a screen pass with Gary displaying his world class speed on a 47-yard touchdown just one minute into the first quarter.
Gary would finish with close to 300 total yards of offense and two scores, proving himself to be as dangerous a player as Hoff and company had previously said.
“Grown man,” Hoff said of Gary. “He lines up in so many different spaces, you have to be aware of him. Misaligning gives them the advantage from the snap, and with a back that good, you can’t give him any advantage.”
Eastside’s first offensive drive showed some promise as Quincy Cullins picked up nine yards on a rushing play, followed by a Noah Cook pass completion to Taylor Carter for 25 yards. After that, a pair of yardage losses and an incomplete pass stalled the drive.
Woodward would connect on a 22-yard field goal at the 2:43 mark of the first quarter to stretch its lead to 10-0, although Eastside averted disaster by holding the War Eagles to that field goal after Snellings connected with Parker Khalert for a 40-yard gain on a 3rd-and-16 play.
The bad breaks continued for the Eagles on their next drive. After going three-and-out on their next drive, Ezra’s punt was blocked after he fielded a low snap, and that gave Woodward a first and goal situation at the Eastside nine yard line.
On the very next play, Snellings found Ambe Caldwell wide open in the end zone for a 9-yard score, making it 17-0 Woodward with 30 seconds before the end of the first quarter.
It would take until the 6:24 mark of the second quarter before Eastside would crack the scoreboard. It happened when Cook climaxed a 10-play, 72-yard scoring drive with a 15-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Antavious Cobb who ran a perfect corner route to the end zone.
Woodward would strike right back in a hurry though, when Snellings found Gary running free on a route over the middle of the Eastside defense. The pass play resulted in a 76-yard catch-and-score, putting the War Eagles back up by 17 with 4:46 left before halftime.
A completely different looking Eastside team came out of the locker room at the start of the third quarter.
The Eagles received the opening kickoff of the second half and went up-tempo with a six-play, 80-yard scoring drive that was capped off by Cook’s 50-yard scoring strike to Shivers. The drive took just over a minute and a half, and pulled the Eagles closer at 24-14.
“We were able to run tempo because we were getting first downs and staying ahead of the chains,” Hoff said. “Everything you could think of, we weren’t doing right in the first half. Part of that is (Woodward). They did some things tonight, and have good athletes and a great team. But when we got those first downs, you can put some stress on the defense.”
The Eagles’ defense took its turn and stiffened after that touchdown drive, forcing a Woodward punt after a six-play drive stalled, and then a physical 9-play, 68-yard drive that featured all rushing plays ensued. When Carter ended that scoring march with a seven-yard touchdown run out of the wildcat formation, it was Woodward 24-21 at the 5:32 mark of the third.
Eastside subsequently forced Woodward to a 3-and-out, and then two plays later, sophomore tailback Terrence Reid burst through the middle of a gassed War Eagle defense for a big gain that would’ve put Eastside in a position to take the lead, but he coughed up the football at the end of the run, giving Woodward possession at their own 14-yard line.
On the first play of the new drive, Gary ripped a run toward the sideline for 38 yards. four plays later, Snellings hooked up with Jacorrei Turner for a 21-yard touchdown that put Woodward back up by 10 just before the third quarter buzzer, turning Reid’s turnover into points.
Hoff said there was no need to chew him out or panic after the fumble, though.
“We told, ‘great run’ when he got back to the sidelines,” he said. “It didn’t really phase us with momentum because we didn’t think, at that point, Woodward could stop us.”
His assessment was correct.
After Woodward’s touchdown, Eastside responded on its next drive as Cook scrambled right and found Carter as his check down receiver, who turned it up field, dodged a tackler, broke another tackle and rumbled for a 63-yard score, making it 31-28 Woodward with 10:38 left in regulation.
Defense bowed up once again as back-to-back sacks on Wright forced the end of another Woodward drive. That would set the stage for a 37-yard Kade Mote field goal to tie things up before Haynes’ and Shivers’ heroics came, with Shivers recording the game-ending sack after Woodward received an untimed down after Eastside was called for a roughing the passer penalty.
There would be no controversial calls to deny the Eagles of this win, however, as it improved Eastside to 6-0 overall and 3-0 in region play ahead of another big region contest with Salem (4-2, 3-0) at Sharp Stadium Friday.
And while some will now start talking about possible undefeated seasons and all the other accolades and accomplishments that could be in store for this Eastside bunch, Hoff just wants to focus on lauding his team’s priceless intangibles.
“Our kids never quit,” he said. “And when you have kids who are relentless and play every snap and play hard whatever the situation is, whatever the scoreboard says, they’re always gonna have a fighter’s chance.”
And already, Carter is starting to look ahead toward the next fight.
“We’ll get back to looking at film and seeing where we made mistakes,” he said. “We’ve got to forget about this game. After tonight, after Saturday. It’s onto the next with Salem. That’s a big game too, so we’ve gotta be ready for that."