COVINGTON, Ga. — It was hard not to play a game of woulda-shoulda-coulda while watching Newton square off against No. 3 Grayson Friday night during Newton’s homecoming night festivities.
In the end, the Newton Rams fell 41-16 to the Grayson Rams in an ugly, penalty filled Region 8-AAAAAAA contest that saw sophomore quarterback Neal Howard make his first career varsity start, and made you wonder, once again, what could've been if Newton was fully healthy.
And Newton coach, Terrance Banks was bullish on the play of his young signal caller who was thrust into action after senior quarterback, Myron Middlebrooks broke his collarbone against second-ranked Archer two weeks ago.
“I think Neal played great,” Banks said. “I think he’s going to continue to grow. There’s nothing like game experience, and he played the No. 3 team in the state. He did well for a half, and then the wheels kind of came off. But we’ll go home and watch the film, and we’ll review it all and go back to work on Monday morning.”
When Newton gets back at it on Monday – and Grayson too, for that matter – you can rest assured that there will be a heavy focus on discipline.
The two teams combined for 34 penalties with over 350 yards attached to them.
“We knew it was gonna be chippy, man,” Banks said. “But I’m not on the field. The refs are. They had to help contain it. I mean, the penalties go both ways, and that’s the game. It helped us, but it was definitely even.”
Things couldn’t have started worse for Newton in the first half.
On the first play of the game, Grayson quarterback connected with Jaquavius Lane on a short pass that turned into a 70-yard sprint to the end zone for Lane, giving Grayson a 7-0 lead with just 20 seconds off the clock.
Newton would answer back immediately, however, on the very next drive. Granted, it was a drive aided by four Grayson penalties that amounted to 46 yards of field position.
Nevertheless, sophomore quarterback, Neal Howard engineered a 12-play, 76-yard drive that ended with a six-yard touchdown run by Nuru Tinch, tying the game at 7 at the 7:35 mark of the first quarter.
Next, it was Grayson’s turn to capitalize on a penalty-aided drive. The first miscue came when a Newton tackler was called for a late hit out of bounds on the ensuing kickoff. Two plays later, the Rams got dinged for another late hit penalty that got tacked on to a 40-yard scramble by Irons that gave Grayson 1st and goal on the Newton 8-yard line.
Two plays later, Newton was called for pass interference as Irons tried to find a receiver in the end zone on a fade route, and two plays after that, Irons would sneak in from four yards out for a score.
The sloppy play persisted through the first half for both teams, as at one point Grayson had more penalty yards (144) than rushing yards (133).
Newton wasn’t far behind, as a litany of unsportsmanlike and personal foul penalties helped keep Newton’s defense in tough situations and its offense off track for much of the night.
In fact, a roughing the kicker penalty scooted Grayson closer for Kevin Sanchez to nail a 25-yard field goal at the 8:49 mark of the second quarter, stretching Grayson’s lead to 17-7. But then the turnover bug hit Newton as Jerrol Hines muffed a Grayson punt.
Grayson recovered it on the Newton 34, and on the very next play, Irons hooked up with Lane again for a 34-yard score, increasing Newton’s deficit to 17 points at the 4:08 mark before the half.
After a stalled Newton drive, Grayson looked poised to put another score on the board. But Rod Kirkland stepped in front of an Irons pass, which gave Newton the ball back at the Grayson 42. Nine plays later, Howard found Thomas for a 17-yard pitch-and-catch, giving the sophomore quarterback his first career touchdown pass, and cutting Grayson’s lead to 24-13 at halftime.
The third quarter started off almost as fast for Grayson as the first quarter. Thanks to an interception on the second play of the game by Grayson’s Solomon Egbe that was returned to the Newton 1-yard line, it set up No. 3 for a one yard plunge, extending the lead to 31-13 with less than two minutes gone by in the third.
Newton answered quickly when James Bowman kicked a 38-yard field goal, set up by a long kick return by Mike Mathison late in the third quarter. But Grayson would tack on another touchdown and field goal aided by Newton turnovers in the fourth quarter to provide the final margin.
The loss was the Rams’ second straight, and dropped Newton to 5-3 overall and 1-2 in the region. But with regular season region games with Shiloh and Rockdale remaining, Newton still holds the No. 3 spot in the region, which means its playoff hopes aren’t dead.
And as far as Banks is concerned, they aren’t going to die.
“I want everybody to understand that this team is not dead,” Banks said. “Do not give up on this team. We’re gonna be fine. We’re gonna get in the playoffs. We’re gonna secure the No. 3 seed and we’re going to go to whoever it is, whether Parkview, Norcross or Brookwood and go with the intentions of winning.”
Banks also said that while he’s holding out hope for Middlebrooks’ return at some point this season, he’s not going to cheat his current quarterback out of his opportunity to make the most of his chances under center.
“Again, I think Neal played a great half,” he said. “We’ve gotta get him ready. We know the circumstances. I love Myron and want him to be back, but the only thing I can control is that Neal is our starting quarterback for game nine. And if he’s our quarterback for game 10 we’re going to work with him there. And if he’s starting quarterback for game 11, we’ll get him ready for that too.”