COVINGTON, Ga. — For Eastside, being alone has its perks.
The seventh-ranked Eagles came into Friday night’s Region 4-AAAA showdown with Salem, needing a victory to put themselves in sole possession of first place in the standings.
Thanks to stifling defense and some opportunistic big plays on offense, Eastside got just that, knocking off Salem 26-14 Friday night at Sharp Stadium.
Taylor Carter finished unofficially with 143 rushing yards 15 carries, leading an efficient Eagles’ ground attack, while the defense held Salem to its second lowest point total of the season.
But you could still tell coach Troy Hoff wasn’t fully satisfied with the way his squad played at times.
“We were a little uneven tonight,” Hoff said. “We came out hot. We wanted to start fast and control the tempo and get out of the gate because obviously we didn’t last week. I think we had a little bit of a let down in the second half.”
Senior defensive back Jamari Brown agreed. Brown caught a touchdown pass in the first half, and was in on several key pass breakups that kept Salem quarterback Donald Wilson from connecting on long bombs for potential touchdowns.
But he, too, believes that the second half left something to be desired.
“First half, we were really solid, but the second half, I felt like we got too complacent with the scoreboard,” Brown said. “We held off a little. But that’s on the players, because the coaches called everything perfectly.”
It was hard to imagine things going much more perfectly for Eastside than it did in the game’s opening moments as the Eagles wasted no time starting off the scoring onslaught.
Junior quarterback Noah Cook opened things up by engineering a five-play, 64-yard drive that ended with a 13-yard scoring strike to Brown that gave Eastside a 7-0 lead with just under two minutes gone by in the first quarter.
The Eagles’ defense gifted Cook and company with another possession when Brown stripped a Salem ball carrier after he caught a pass from Donald Wilson. Two plays later, Cook kept it on a zone-read and darted 27 yards through the heart of Salem’s defense to stretch Eastside’s lead to 14-0.
Both offenses hit a bit of a stalemate for the rest of the first quarter, although Eastside Was driving for what appeared to be a 21-0 lead. But the drive ended when Cook threw an interception in the end zone to Keenan Bailey while trying to hit Colby Shivers on a slant route.
Salem couldn’t capitalize offensively, though before the end of the first quarter, and Eastside’s first drive of the second quarter climaxed with Kade Mote booting a 44-yard field goal, stretching Eastside’s lead to 17-0 at the 9:53 mark before halftime.
The 17-0 score would hold at the break. And just as they did last week, the Eagles would come out smoking in the third quarter, defensively speaking. Brown laid a big hit on a Salem wide receiver, separating him from the ball and Antavious Cobb picked off Wilson’s pass, taking it down to the Seminoles’ 9-yard line. That play seemed to represent the ballhawking mentality Eastside’s defensive backs carried with them all game.
“Watching film, I see they threw a lot of screen plays, so I saw their receiver curl back and I went for the shot on him,” Brown said, describing his monstrous stick of the Salem receiver.
“When I saw that, I just laid the wood, as I call it,” he said, adding that such opportunities to deliver a big blow to an opponent gets him juiced up.
“It’s intense, because when I hit somebody, I let all my power, energy, anger out, and in football everything is legal between the lines. It feels real good.”
Once Eastside got the ball back, the offense stalled after a pair of incomplete passes, though, and would have to settle for a Mote field goal from 21 yards out.
Salem would finally get on the board late in the third quarter when quarterback Donald Wilson rumbled in from five yards out. The two-point conversion attempt failed, leaving the score 20-6, Eastside.
The Eagles’ next score gets an assist from special teams, as punter Ezra King booted a beauty that flipped the field and pinned Salem inside its own 6-yard line.
After Hunter Williams sacked Wilson for a loss of three, and a false start penalty backed up the Seminoles to their own 1, Wilson narrowly avoided a safety on a third-and-long play. It forced a Salem punt though, which was short. And on the next play, Cook hooked up with Cobb for a 24-yard score that gave Eastside a 26-6 lead right before the third quarter buzzer.
Hoff expressed his pleasure with the way special teams contributed in Friday’s win.
“It was huge, because there were times tonight we could play field position,” he said. “We’re confident around that 35, 45-yard line where Kade’s been solid all year. Ezra had that great punt that pinned them deep. That part of our game makes the defense better, and when teams are backed up against their own end zone, it makes the offense better when we get a shorter field.”
The Seminoles would tack on one last touchdown late in the fourth quarter, but by it was too little, too late. With the win, Eastside improved to 7-0 overall and 4-0 in Region 4-AAAA play ahead of next Thursday’s matchup with Druid Hills.
But Hoff says he’s wary — and wants his team to be also — of playing as the hunted instead of being the hunter.
“I think that’s the challenge now,” he said. “To keep motivating them to play our standard of football that we don’t feel like we’ve reached yet. To keep getting better and worrying about us and not the opponent. We’ll have a quick turnaround Thursday with Druid Hills. We’re gonna face some guys over the next few weeks that can play. The win-loss record may not be there, but they can play.
“And we’ve got a target on our back now. When you’re on top, you’re gonna get everybody’s best shot now. We’re in that position, and we have to defend it now.”