Often at times, a highly-anticipated and super-hyped playoff game fails to live up to its top billing. However, this wasn't the case with the Statesboro-North Clayton contest Friday night at Tara Stadium.
Both schools took the field as state-ranked squads with identical records and coaching strategies that emphasize on a strong ground attack with a punishing defensive approach. But in the end, it was Statesboro (11-1, 5-1 Region 2-AAAA) that forced its will on the opposition, edging out North Clayton (10-2, 8-0 Region 4-AAAA) 14-12 in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs.
The loss snaps North Clayton's nine-game winning streak, but most importantly, it sends the Eagles flying home for the winter, thus ending their shot at a state title.
"It's one of those situations where you need a little more experience," said North Clayton head coach Rodney Hackney. "We made a lot of mistakes and small things turned the game for you. Those guys (Statesboro) have been in the playoffs the last 10 years. This is our first year being back and making it to the second round is a big accomplishment. Our kids have bigger goals and it's a standard now at North Clayton."
Statesboro's rushing attack made the initial dent in the scoreboard when senior running back Patrick Jenkins plunged across for a three-yard touchdown with 8:43 in the first quarter, capping off a drive that featured eight straight rushes.
North Clayton answered right back with a ground score of its own after Clarence Jackson broke free on a counter for an 11-yard touchdown dash. But the extra point was blocked, making the game 7-6, Statesboro.
In the second quarter, Jackson found the end zone once again, this time on a 33-yard sprint during which he delivered a powerful stiff arm to Statesboro linebacker Quentin Williams prior to crossing the goal line. North Clayton lined up for the two-point conversion to give it cushion, however, the play was broken up and the Eagles had to settle for a 12-7 lead.
After trading punts over their next two series, the Eagles were pinned deep in their territory and forced to kick the ball away as the first half came to a close.
Jackson, who also fills in as the punter, kicked a knuckle ball that was downed by Statesboro at the North Clayton 43-yard line. Two plays later, quarterback Luke Connell tossed a bullet pass to a streaking Graden Bozeman for a 42-yard touchdown reception with 44 halftime and eventual game-winning score.
Throughout the second half, both squads exchanged heavy hits amidst the cold night air, however, neither team would give in as this contest went down to final seconds with the outcome still up for grabs.
Late in the fourth, Statesboro was milking the clock and its offensive line mowed its way downfield, eating up over six minutes on a 13-play drive. But the drive stalled on fourth and two from the 16-yard with just over one minute left in the game, giving North Clayton one last shot to pull out the win.
The Eagles strung together some big plays and got as close as the 20-yard line, but Melton Artis' heroic attempt was intercepted by Joe Collins with nine seconds to go to seal the deal for Statesboro.
"If anybody knows about us, that's the nature of our game. We're not going to do anything fancy. We try to stay patient and play good defense. Playing someone like North Clayton makes you do that on both sides of the football. We stayed patient and played our game," said Statesboro head coach Steve Pennington.