By Brian Paglia
Last year, North Clayton couldn't have made the play it did with 6 seconds left in the first half Thursday night. On Ola's 30-yard line, Eagles quarterback Dennis Johnson lofted a pass over Ola's secondary into the left corner of the end zone. Kyle Taylor caught it. North Clayton erupted on the field and on the sidelines.
Johnson's touchdown pass changed the complexion of the game at halftime and all but sealed North Clayton's 27-0 victory at Ola in a Region 4-AAAA game.
"We couldn't have made that play last year," North Clayton coach Rodney Hackney said. "And we knew we needed another touchdown before halftime."
While marquee running back Clarence Jackson provided another stalwart performance, and the Eagles' defense forced two turnovers, perhaps the biggest revelation was Johnson, who won the job after last year's starter Milton Artis transferred to Westlake. The sophomore quarterback finished 6-for-10 passing for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
He connected with Taylor just before halftime to give North Clayton (4-0, 2-0) a 21-0 halftime lead. He connected with Khalil Stinson for an 18-yard touchdown for the Eagles' final score in the fourth quarter, a missile over the middle through good pass coverage by the Mustangs.
Earlier on that drive, he effectively executed a deceptive screen pass to Jackson for a 31-yard gain on third-and-21.
Hackney said earlier in the year that Johnson's throwing ability would allow North Clayton to diversify its offense.
Johnson proved him right Thursday.
"He's young," Hackney said, "but what I liked most about his performance tonight was he pulled the ball down and ran when he needed to."
North Clayton struck immediately, handing the ball to Jackson six times during a 7-play, 70-yard scoring drive that finished with Jackson taking a sweep right 8 yards for a touchdown.
Two possessions later from Ola's 31, Jackson burrowed up the middle, slipped out of a low tackler and broke outside for a 31-yard touchdown.
Jackson finished with 204 yards on 22 carries, his second straight game eclisping the 200-yard mark. The 2008 Southern Crescent Clayton County Player of the Year also caught three passes for 42 yards.
Ola (1-3, 0-2), meanwhile, was able to move the ball effectively, but turnovers plagued the Mustangs early. They had 217 yards rushing. Trey McBride had 75 yards on nine carries. Ryan Arnold had 68 yards on 13 carries. Jamaal Edmonds rushed for 45 yards.
But Ola's first three possessions ended with a fumble, another fumble and a blocked punt that North Clayton recovered in Mustangs territory, miscues that Ola couldn't recover from.
"Three turnovers killed any momentum we had," Ola coach John Kovzel said. "We were never able to bounce back from those. But hats off to North Clayton. They were better defensively. They came ready to play."