COVINGTON, Ga. — Friday's battle of unbeaten Class 7A teams between Newton and Westlake quickly turned into a defensive slugfest.
Ultimately, the Rams made enough plays on special teams in the second half to keep their unblemished record intact.
Newton downed the Lions 27-12.
Leading 7-6 at the half, the Rams forced Westlake into another punt on its first drive of the second half. Zion Johnson was the return man and, when he fielded the ball, he raced down the sideline and into the end zone.
Johnson's score provided Newton with an eight-point cushion with 9:32 left in the third.
Even after the Lions' drew within two off an ensuing touchdown drive, Newton's special teams came through again.
Westlake did a pooch kick on the following kickoff that landed in the arms of Gabriel Williams. Williams took the kickoff all the way to the four-yard line.
Johnson found his way into the end zone a few moments later to extend Newton's lead 21-12.
The junior tailback's fourth score of the game seemed to seal the deal for Newton.
With 7:03 left in the fourth, Johnson punched it in from a yard out. That placed Newton ahead 27-12 following an unsuccessful two-point conversion attempt.
Both defenses played lights out in the first half.
At the 1:57 mark of the first quarter, Westlake had the ball at Newton's two-yard line. On four consecutive plays, the Rams stuffed the Lions scoring attempt resulting in a turnover on downs.
Jehden Robinson's tackle for loss officially ended the possession.
The Lions responded three plays later.
Johnson coughed the ball up and was recovered by Demarius Hines at the 18-yard line.
But once again, Newton's defense came through.
A trio of Rams defenders greeted Westlake quarterback Sean Smith on fourth and goal for a five-yard sack.
Newton's offense broke through on the next play with 7:13 remaining in the first half.
Johnson took the handoff from quarterback Deron Benson, jetted to the right edge and passed by some Westlake defenders on his way to an 84-yard touchdown.
Samuel Velasquez's extra point attempt was successful — a point that loomed into halftime.
Westlake proceeded to drive 63 yards down the field after Newton's score. Naeem Odeniyi scampered in for a four-yard touchdown.
However, the ensuing extra point attempt was just wide right. As a result, Newton's lead remained 7-6.
Johnson’s four touchdowns improved his junior season total to 11, which places him with the most touchdowns scored for the Rams.
The Rams improve to 5-0 in 2023 as they enter their first bye week of the year. On Sept. 29, Region 4-AAAAAAA begins with a road matchup against Grayson.
Newton has yet to defeat Grayson in the seven-game matchup series.