By Derrick Mahone
At times the North Clayton offense stalled, but it was hardly ever fully stopped.
The ninth-ranked Eagles used a powerful running game, with some timely passing, to defeat visiting Bainbridge 19-7 in the first round of the Class AAAA playoffs on a cool fall night at Southern Crescent Stadium.
Fueled by a ground attack that produced 193 yards, 143 from standout running back Clarence Jackson, the Eagles were able to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the second straight season. Jackson, who had rushed 1,535 yards going into the game, sat out the majority of the fourth quarter with leg cramps.
"Overall it was a good win," North Clayton coach Rodney Hackney said. "Hey, anytime you win in the playoffs, it's a good win. We played as a team and won as a team. That (Bainbridge) was a good football team we just beat. My hats off to them for playing hard throughout the game."
The Eagles (9-2) scored on two of its five first half possession to take a 13-7 halftime lead. Another drive stalled at the Bearcats 21 when North Clayton was stopped on fourth down with 5:30 remaining in the opening quarter.
While its offense was having trouble finding the end zone, the Eagles defense was in high gear.
North Clayton stopped Bainbridge (6-5) on its first three possessions to open the game. The Bearcats lone score came off a North Clayton turnover midway through the second quarter. Bearcats defensive back Shawn Samuels picked off a Dennis Johnson pass and returned it to the Eagles' 3.
Three plays later, Thomas Smiley scored on a 1-yard run with 6:12 remaining to tie the game at 7-7.
"We moved the ball well, but we just couldn't score as much as we would have liked," Hackney said. "After he (Johnson) threw the interception, I told him, 'welcome to the playoffs,' but he bounced back for the rest of the game."
The Bearcats would get no closer to scoring for the rest of the game as they battled turnover troubles coupled with a stingy North Clayton defense.
"I'm happy we won, but I really didn't want to give them seven points," junior linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. "I'll take the win."
Aside from his lone interception, Johnson showed a lot of poise for a sophomore playing in his first playoff game. He was 4 of 9 for 128 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown toss to Khalil Stinson with 5:58 remaining in the third quarter to close out the scoring.
"We executed a little better in the second half," Jackson said. "We had some mental errors, but overall the team was able to step up to get the win."
And it was finally secured when Eagles senior defensive back Winston Williams intercepted a pass with 1:48 remaining to stop a late Bainbridge drive to erase any chance of a comeback.
The Eagles held Bainbridge to only 128 yards rushing, including five in the first quarter. Bainbridge switched quarterbacks midway through the second half and had some success. With sophomore Steven Bench relieving junior Rohan Gaines, the Bearcats were able to move the ball some, but the Eagles defense refused to break. Bench and Gaines combined for 72 yards passing on 7 of 15 passing.
Turnovers were a big problem for the team. Bainbridge had three fumbles and an interception in the game.
"We have been working hard on defense," Herrera said. "We knew they couldn't throw the ball that good. We got some good defensive backs. Overall, the defense played well."
The Eagles now have to travel to Brunswick for next week's second round game. Brunswick, the Region 2-AAAA champions defeated Hephzibah 16-6 at home. This will be the first ever meeting between the two schools.