SUWANEE, Ga. — Call it the tune-up before the measuring stick.
The Newton Rams came off a bye week — and perhaps showed a little bye week rust early on before pushing aside Peachtree Ridge Friday night, defeating the pesky Lions 47-28 to improve to 3-0 and give themselves full permission to look ahead and prepare for Friday’s showdown in Valdosta with No. 4 Lowndes.
But despite the win, Banks hurriedly acknowledged that his team still has some things to clean up, even tossing some of the blame for some of this past Friday’s miscues on himself.
“There are some errors we made, some communication errors, and it starts with me,” Banks said. “But once we shore it up, those issues will be solved, and I think going forward we’ll have some guys in the right positions and where they need to be at the right time.”
Newton played last Friday’s game a bit shorthanded, as several of the Rams stars sat out either nursing injuries or recovering from illness. The most notable absence was senior tailback Nuru Tinch whom coaches decided to let stay home for rest and recovery.
“He’s been sick this week,” Banks said. “But he’ll be ready to go against Lowndes.”
Chances are Newton will need him for Lowndes. But the Rams didn’t need him to dispatch of Peachtree Ridge. That’s because of the stellar play by senior quarterback Myron Middlebrooks.
Middlebrooks rolled up an unofficial total of 424 yards of offense — 304 through the air on 18-of-26 passing with three scores, and another 120 on the ground with a pair of rushing touchdowns.
The trio of Middlebrooks, junior running back Adarius Thomas and senior Ryan Burton, combined for over 250 rushing yards and all of the Rams’ rushing touchdowns.
Middlebrooks hit several different receivers, and at a point in the game, completed nine straight passes and even bigger, he committed no turnovers. It’s the kind of play Banks is coming to expect from his senior under center.
“It’s just been him getting used to the young receivers, but now he’s doing those things we’ve always done and wanted to do with him,” Banks said. “We’ve wanted to go down hill in the running game this season and save Myron for when we really needed him. And (against Peachtree Ridge) we needed him, and he showed senior leadership.”
After a slow start, Newton would find the scoreboard first in a big way when Middlebrooks faded back until the Peachtree Ridge pass rush was almost suffocating and executed a perfect screen pass to Thomas who scooted 70 yards for the touchdown to give the Rams a 6-0 lead at the 9:49 mark of the second quarter.
After that, the scoring came at a rapid pace for both teams.
Peachtree Ridge appeared to answer Newton’s first touchdown quickly when on the second play of their ensuing drive, quarterback Seth Robinson found Jalen Johnson for what appeared to be an 83-yard scoring strike. But the touchdown pass was called back due to offensive pass interference.
But it would only prove to be a temporary setback for the Lions. Robinson found Johnson who beat cornerback Rod Kirkland for the second straight time on the same play for a 31-yard gain down the right sideline. Then two plays later, Robinson and and Johnson hooked up again on a 48-yard touchdown pass, this time with no flags. The score with the extra point put Peachtree Ridge up 7-6 with 8:28 before halftime.
The Rams settled a bit, and Middlebrooks engineered an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive that featured more aggressive offensive line play. It was capped off with a three-yard run from Thomas. The extra point was no good, but Newton still had a 12-7 lead.
After the defense forced a Peachtree Ridge punt, Newton looked to have created some separation from the Lions with a quick-strike, 88-yard drive that took just four plays and 47 seconds. Middlebrooks found Michael Mathison who outran the coverage and snagged a 41-yard scoring pass to give Newton a 20-7 lead with 43 seconds left in the second.
But Peachtree would find the end zone one last time before the break, thanks to Payton Bowens returning the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, to make the score 19-13 at the half.
When the third quarter began, it was the Newton defense getting the ball back to Middlebrooks and company by creating a turnover. Rod Kirkland literally wrestled the football away from a Peachtree Ridge ball carrier and returned it about 20 yards to set the Rams’ offense up in prime position to score again.
That’s what Newton did when Middlebrooks capped a seven play, 61-yard drive with pristine execution when he faked the wide receiver screen pass, and then found Robert Lewis wide open in the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown pass. The score and extra point stretched Newton’s lead to 26-13 with 7:42 left in the quarter.
Banks called that play one that perfectly capsulizes Middlebrooks’ growth as a quarterback.
“A couple of those passing plays, I didn’t call,” Banks said. “Myron did. And that touchdown to Robert was one of them. So that just tells you the maturity that he has.”
After a Peachtree Ridge three-and-out, Middlebrooks led another scoring drive, highlighted by passes from Middlebrooks to Lewis for gains of 16 and 28 yards before finishing it himself with a one-yard score on a keeper. It was part of a stretch where Middlebrooks completed nine straight passes.
At that point, it was 33-13, Newton, but Peachtree Ridge would respond again with a 60-yard scoring drive capped off by Robinson’s short touchdown pass to tight end Payne Durham. The score and two-point conversion cut Newton’s lead to 33-21 with 1:57 left in the third.
The two teams would trade touchdowns again in the fourth quarter until Thomas ended the scoring with a six-yard touchdown run at the 2:12 mark of the game. Thomas’ short scamper finalized a 13-play, 90-yard march and put away any faint hopes of a Lions comeback.
Now, Newton (3-0) and Banks will look southward to fourth-ranked Lowndes (3-0) which had its Friday night game with Shiloh postponed until Sept. 22 due to travel and weather concerns with Hurricane Irma. But next week’s game with Newton will remain, and Banks said he’s looking forward to seeing where his team stands against one of Georgia’s elite programs.
“Our guys have shown us this season that they’re gonna fight, and they’re going to play for the next play, which is what we keep preaching,” Banks said. “But Lowndes, that’s the best team in the state right now, hands down. They’re the most physical we’ve played, the fastest on defense. Their quarterback is a bonafide star.”
And Banks does know a little something about playing in that raucous atmosphere. His 2013 squad went down to Valdosta and upset the Vikings 15-14 in the second game of the regular season. He remembers what it was like then, and doesn’t expect much to change now.
“There will be about 150 of my family, our fans and friends down there and 15,000 of them,” Banks said. “But we wouldn’t have it any other way.”