By Jeffery Armstrong
The North Clayton Eagles botched two onside kicks Friday night, allowing the Northwest Whitfield Bruins to rally from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit to upset the Eagles 28-27 in a Class AAAA first-round state playoff game at Tara Stadium.
North Clayton's undefeated season and first state playoff game in six years wasn't supposed to end like this.
A Dominique Randolph one-yard touchdown run gave the Eagles (10-1) a seemingly safe 27-15 lead with 6:54 left in the fourth quarter. But Northwest quarterback Caleb Callahan drove the Bruins (9-2) downfield quickly, hitting wide receiver Corbin Albertson for a 46-yard TD pass to cut the lead to 27-22 with 4:25 left in regulation. Northwest then kicked its first onside kick, which Eagles junior wide receiver Isaiah Cantrell grabbed but couldn't hold. The Bruins recovered on the North Clayton 45 and seven plays later, Callahan scored from the one to give the Bruins their first lead of the game, 28-27, at the 1:14 mark.
Northwest kicked its second onside kick and the Eagles again botched it, allowing the Bruins to recover. Northwest, who hadn't been to state since 2000, then ran out the clock and jumped for joy over their 28-27 road win. North Clayton players were devastated, many shedding tears.
The Eagles committed four turnovers in the game.
"We just didn't come to play defensively. They made the plays when they had to and we didn't," said a disappointed North Clayton head coach Don Shockley. "I don't know what else to say."
The loss spoiled a great night from several North Clayton players. The junior Randolph had his TD run and tossed an 82-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Dirk Engram in the first quarter for a 7-0 Eagles lead.
Engram ended his high school career with eight receptions for 143 yards and the TD.
Sophomore lineman Jeremy Elder and junior defense end Donnell Sanders made key defensive plays all game. Elder's two tackles for loss at the start of the fourth quarter put the Eagles in position to build their 12-point lead.
Once again, sophomore quarterback Morgan Burnett did major damage in a game. He had 146 yards rushing on 17 carries and had touchdown runs of 1 and 21 yards. He converted one two-point conversion in the first half, but couldn't convert two in the second half.
Northwest was led by running back Ryan Burgess, who rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Callahan was 9 of 14 for 160 yards and two touchdown passes. Burnett tipped one of Callahan's passes that fell into the hands of Tyler Johnson, who raced into the end zone for a 15-15 tie at the half.
North Clayton outgained Northwest 369-297, including 226-137 in rushing yards.