As the Newton Rams wrapped their arms around each other last Friday night, and swayed side to side while facing their marching band that played the slow rendition of its alma mater song, though you knew it was the end of their season, it didn’t feel like a particularly sad ending.
Backup quarterback Brock Blake had just finished a performance that included three interceptions while playing in relief of an injured Myron Middlebrooks, and the Newton offense mustered just 56 total yards as the Rams lost to No.1 Mill Creek 41-0, ending their season in the first round of the Class AAAAAAA playoffs.
The shutout at Mill Creek was the third of the season, all coming against what could be considered upper echelon teams. But Banks was optimistic and upbeat, despite the offensive struggles that plagued the team off and on this season, and he wouldn’t blame the loss of Middlebrooks, who Banks said went down with a foot injury at practice on Wednesday, for the defeat.
“The game plan changed a little, but not that much with Brock in the game,” Banks said. “We went in saying we would try not to put our defense in a bad position. That we would try to do some things to make Mill Creek have to make long drives. But (Mill Creek) had a phenomenal kicking game and special teams, and then of course we had the turnovers which I always say we cannot do. A tip here, a tip there. That’s just how it was.”
It was a game very similar to the 34-0 loss at No. 3 Grayson three weeks ago, in that the Newton defense played well enough and definitely held serve, but just couldn’t hold up for an ineffective offense. Friday at Mill Creek, Newton managed just 56 yards of total offense. But despite the score, Mill Creek didn’t exactly have a lights-out performance when they had the ball either.
“We just couldn’t find that spark to flip the field,” said Newton’s star senior wide out J.J. Holloman. “The defense came out and they really balled out, but, I don’t know. We just couldn’t find that spark.”
Mill Creek opened up the scoring with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Cameron Turley to Joey Gump. It appeared that Gump may have stepped out of bounds before coming down with the ball, but the officials called it a score.
Brenton King connected on field goals of 32 and 39 yards in the first quarter to give the Hawks a 13-0 lead. After the Newton defense held serve for several series, a crucial offensive miscue set up Mill Creek’s next score.
It happened when Blake threw a pick to Matthew Winston who returned it 55 yards to the Newton 12-yard line. Turley then promptly threw a 12-yard strike to stretch Mill Creek’s lead to 20-0.
Robert Black tried to provide a spark for Newton when he picked off a tipped Turley pass and returned it 36 yards, with just one man to beat for a score. But Newton’s offense couldn’t capitalize, and Turley would later find Trey Turner on a 29-yard post pattern which made it 27-0 at the half.
Mill Creek continued to pour it on in the third quarter, with another 32-yard touchdown toss from Turley — this one went to Preston Norwood who dragged a couple of Newton defenders into the end zone with him. Then Victory Haywood grabbed what would be Brock’s third interception and took it to the house to provide the final margin.
Although Brock visibly struggled to find comfort in the pocket against an aggressive Mill Creek pass rush — something that Banks had to know would probably happen — the coach said he opted to sit Middlebrooks with an eye toward the future.
“Myron was real gimpy on that foot, and after they took him to the doctor, I said we’re not going to risk a kid’s life for just one game,” Banks said. “The good news with him is he’s a junior, and that means hopefully he’ll be able to get it together and be ready to go next year.”
One of the key factors in some of Newton’s hit-or-miss offensive performances could, in fact, be the youth and inexperience factor. Although Newton started the season ranked No. 7 in Class AAAAAAA, much of that could’ve been hangover from an impressive 2015 campaign that featured a talented but well-seasoned quarterback and cast of surrounding players.
Banks has said several times this year that youth was a major challenge for his team to overcome throughout the year, and it showed up most in big games against more stout opponents.
Newton scored a grand total of zero points against Mill Creek, Grayson and Archer, and had less than 500 yards of total offense combined against those schools. Against everyone else on the schedule, the Rams averaged 31 points per game.
But with nine starters returning on offense next year, Banks is optimistic about what could be in 2017.
“That’s the good news, that we have those nine coming back,” he said. “We’re gonna miss J.J. (Holloman) and Dante (Johnson), but we feel good about what we have coming back. Myron, all of our offensive line, all of our running backs, they’ll all be back.”
Banks also feels good about his senior class, and the things they’ve accomplished over the last four years.
“The first thing I’m telling those guys is I love them and to be proud,” he said. “No, we didn’t start off to be 6-4. We wanted to win it all. But winning is secondary to building men, graduating seniors and getting them into college. This class won more games in four years than any other class, and is only the second senior class in Newton history to go to the playoffs all four years. They have a lot to be proud of.”
As for those coming back next year, Banks said he hopes the lopsided, season ending loss gives them a constructive sting.
“I want my juniors and sophomores and freshmen to remember how this felt,” he said. “Take three weeks off, get past Thanksgiving, but then let’s get back in that weight room and work to be able to push some people around. Championships are often won in that weight room, so come December and January, we gotta get to it.”