COVINGTON, Ga. — Play it again, Rams — Newton Rams, that is.
And stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Newton football team starts off the season fast — like 3-0, 4-1-fast. Then a loss in a winnable game it wishes it could have back. Then another. Then another.
That was actually last season’s song about a Newton Rams squad that sprinted out of the gate winning its first three games only to lose five of their last six on the way to a 4-6 2021 campaign that caused them to miss the playoffs.
Well, we’re only midway through the chorus of the 2022 season, but after Thursday night’s 26-0 loss to Grayson, it’s starting to sound like an infamously familiar tune.
Newton’s loss in the Region 4-AAAAAAA opener for both teams doesn’t even begin to cross the Rams of Covington out of the 2022 playoff picture.
But in order to keep this year’s song from becoming a mournful dirge signifying a third straight death to postseason aspirations, coach Camiel Grant and company will have to change up something fast.
“I told them, offensively we’re not very good right now,” Grant said. “That’s the bottom line. They had opportunities and we didn’t take advantage of them. Lack of focus. We’ve gotta do better coaching them on that side of the ball. We have to find a way to get better on offense in a hurry.”
Thursday night was the first shutout loss Newton’s suffered since losing 42-0 to Lowndes in the first round of the Class AAAAAAA playoffs in 2020. Newton also lost to Mill Creek and Grayson in back-to-back shutouts during the regular season that year.
Aside from that, you’ve got to go all the way back to 2017 to find the last time a Newton team left the football field scoreless after a game.
The game’s opening play served as an omen for what the night — especially the first half — would bring as Newton’s first snap from scrimmage was halted by an illegal motion penalty. Three plays later, Newton was punting it away on a three-and out.
Newton’s next drive featured six penalties and a punt from deep in its own territory that gave Grayson its second straight plus-side starting field position. Grant’s bunch committed well over 20 total penalties in the game — 11 of them coming in the first half.
From there it was an all Joseph Taylor drive that looked sure to end with points as the Grayson tailback carried eight straight times. But Newton’s Ryshawn Perry stoned him on that eighth carry, forcing a passing situation. And then Justin Benton sacked Grayson quarterback Jeff Davis to force a 36-yard field goal that gave Grayson a 3-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
That’s how the score remained at halftime.
Newton’s Zion Johnson tried to give a spark by immediately going to work after a missed 37-yard field goal attempt late in the second quarter. He darted through a hole in Grayson’s defense for 21 yards but was injured after appearing to be stepped on around his head and neck area at the end of that run. Johnson was carted off the field on a stretcher.
“When they snatched him down on the tackle, I think he got that whiplash and for a quick instant, he felt like he went numb,” Grant said. “But once we got out there, everything was good. He was moving and he had feeling in his extremities. But the precautionary side of it is, once he made that mention that he felt numb, they took the proper precautions. That’s what you want them to do. But prayerfully everything is okay, and it looks like it should be.”
Newton’s offense as a whole continued to not be okay, though.
Its next offensive possession almost ended in a 24-yard touchdown pass on fourth down, but junior quarterback Riley Scruggs’ pass to a wide open receiver who was streaking down the sideline toward the end zone hung up in the air long enough to give a Grayson safety time to recover and tap it away.
Grayson’s ensuing drive seemed promising, especially when quarterback Jeff Davis connected with John Cineas for a 30-yard pickup. But Ryshawn Perry’s second sack of the night and Jamarcus Presley’s block of a 44-yard field goal attempt at the end of the half kept it a 3-0 Grayson halftime lead.
In the third quarter, Grayson looked like a team that got chided well in the halftime locker room. It took the opening drive and quickly marched 80 yards down the field on six plays, capped off by a 30-yard sprint to the end zone by Grayson tailback Joseph Taylor which gave it a 9-0 lead at the 9:34 mark of the third quarter.
From there, a once-stout Newton defense began to wear down.
Grayson essentially put the game out of reach when it scored on an 11-yard pass from Davis to Caden High, giving it a 19-0 advantage. Forty-five seconds later, Grayson’s defense rubbed salt into the wound when Zion Ferguson picked off a Deron Benson pass and strolled untouched into the end zone.
It was a loss that, in many ways, felt all too familiar to Newton fans who remember how things went south last season after a fast start. But Grant says he believes things are different now, despite the struggles.
“I don’t know if people can see it from the sidelines or stands, or if people can see it with the naked eye, but what I see is a lot more fight,” Grant said. “Even though we’re struggling right now, I a see a lot more fight than we had last year when things started to go bad. Guys are still competing hard, so if we can continue to get that, we’ve got a chance to come out of it.”
To be sure, Newton still has time to get it right. Four more region contests await, and Newton has to finish at least fourth in the standings to qualify for the Class AAAAAAA playoffs.
But only one of those four remaining games — a regular season home finale against a not-so-great Archer squad — seem like a “gimmie.” Brookwood, Parkview and South Gwinnett, on the other hand, look every bit as stout as Grayson did tonight.
And as Grant alluded to, in order to find at least three more wins in this season, a few things have to happen.
Next man up
This, indeed, could’ve been a different game if Zion Johnson and Justin Benton (knee) don’t go down in the middle of the game and if Marcus Calwise (high ankle) were fully healthy. Grant said Calwise was actually cleared to play Thursday night, but in a game that wasn’t as crucial for playoff implications, Grant decided to let him get extra rest ahead of another bye week.
“Marcus is progressing pretty well,” Grant said. “Had this been end of the season and you’re trying to get in (the playoffs), he would probably go. But we felt like tonight, we’ve got another bye week coming up next week, so that’s two more weeks to get him back to 100% and ready for the stretch run.”
As for Benton and 6-foot-2, 240-pound sophomore Wayne Patterson, they both utilized crutches to get them off the field. Benton didn’t come back into the game after going out midway through the second quarter. Grant said the sideline inspection was “inconclusive,” and that Benton would go get examined in the morning.
But that’s a lot of “if” situations. And with no guarantee yet that any of that talented bunch will see the field again this season, Newton’s going to have to rely on players like Kweli DeLoach, Keon Davis and Ryshawn Perry to step up quickly. Perry’s two-sack and two-tackles-for-loss performance Thursday was a welcome sign, given the current state of the Rams’ roster.
Which man up?
Newton’s got to find a more permanent answer at quarterback. Grant knows it. Both Riley Scruggs and freshman Deron Benson saw considerable action Thursday night. Grant elected to go with Benson more in the second half, perhaps hoping to get a similar spark that the team saw from Benson’s presence in a near-comeback loss at McEachern several weeks ago. That wasn’t to be tonight. Benson threw a pair of fourth quarter interceptions, and though Scruggs didn’t commit a turnover, he also couldn’t engineer a score. All it did was make Newton’s quarterback picture murkier than ever.
“It’s a tough situation right now because you’ve got no experience in the quarterback room, and that makes it tough from week to week,” Grant said. “We’re just trying to see which guy gives us the best chance, and tonight, in the second half, we felt like Deron was gonna give us the best chance to put us in the end zone.”
Grant said he’s not looking for either signal caller to light up the world — rather, just be consistent with the rudimentary stuff.
“What you look for is if they can do the basic stuff consistently,” he said. “There are some things they’re just going to have to see enough times to understand it. But there are some basic things they’re gonna have to learn how to do pretty quickly — experience or not — in order to give us a chance to put more points on the board.”
Time to D up
Right now, it looks like Newton’s defense might be its best chance to stay in games. The defense held serve for the better part of three quarters Thursday night, and even with the second half absence of West Virginia pledge Justin Benton due to injury, other playmakers on that Newton defensive front emerged, including Perry, Patterson and middle linebacker Olan Robinson.
“Our defense continues to play well, and that gives us a chance to win,” Grant said. “But you gotta be honest with them too. You’ve gotta tell them the truth — that right now, the offense is not holding up their end of the bargain.”
What’s Next for Newton?
Newton (3-3, 0-1) will benefit from another bye week next Friday, plus an extra day, given the rescheduling of this week due to the precautions for a hurricane that ended up staying away. Then Brookwood comes to town on Oct. 14, followed by trips to Parkview and South Gwinnett before the aforementioned Senior Night tussle with Archer. Grayson (5-1, 1-0) also gets to take next Friday off before tussling with South Gwinnett on Oct. 14.