By Brian Paglia
The magnitude of the night was clear. North Clayton was celebrating its homecoming and doing so by inviting Mt. Zion, one of its greatest threats in Region 4-AAAA.
Clarence Jackson entered the stage, grabbed homecoming king honors and wore down the Bulldogs to keep No. 7 North Clayton undefeated with a convincing 34-13 victory Friday night.
The magnitude of the victory nearly matched the celebratory nature of the night. With the win, North Clayton (5-0, 3-0) dealt the Bulldogs its second region loss, one that now puts Mt. Zion's playoff hopes in peril, and kept the Eagles alongside Griffin and Dutchtown at the top of the region standings.
"We really needed this win," Jackson said. "This was pretty much for the playoffs, to see where we stand in the region."
"We knew coming in this was really for a playoff spot," North Clayton coach Rodney Hackney said. "We knew that beating Mt. Zion, one of the top teams that had a great season last year, would put us in the driver seat as far as controlling our own destiny."
North Clayton took the lead late in the second quarter, and the formula was simple, though it hadn't work for much of the game: give the ball to Jackson.
He carried the ball six times for 34 yards, then caught a delayed screen pass, broke a tackle at the Mt. Zion 15 and sprinted untouched for a 21-yard touchdown catch. The long, plodding drive consumed over six minutes, 79 yards and put the Eagles up 7-0.
It was the only sustained drive either team produced in the first half, but there were moments of sudden excitement.
Like the Bulldogs' first play of scrimmage, a double reverse to Lakendall Irby who hit Randall Snell for a 51-yard gain. But Mt. Zion gained only six more yards before turning the ball over on downs.
Or like Kyle Taylor's interception of Bulldogs quarterback Jarrell King, a pass he caught at North Clayton's 41 and nearly returned for a touchdown with just seconds remaining in the half. But two stifled plays later and halftime arrived.
A night featuring star running backs had produced few theatrics. Jackson had just 36 yards rushing by halftime. Mt. Zion running back Quarterrio Morgan, who had exceeded 200 yards in two of his first three games, had just 27 yards.
So halftime was for re-evaluating.
"I just had to talk to my team," Jackson said, "had to let them get to me and pump me up. I started rolling, then they started rolling and went out and took the lead."
Indeed, Jackson rushed for 79 of his 115 yards on the night in the second half and had 45 yards receiving. He also had a 93-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the third quarter that put North Clayton up 27-0 going into the fourth quarter.
When Mt. Zion answered with a swift 59-yard drive to make it 27-7, Jackson responded with a 31-yard touchdown run.
Gradually, a combination of Jackson's running, another Taylor interception and constant defensive pressure physically wore out Mt. Zion.
"One thing we saw on film was Mt. Zion tired a little in the second half last week against Griffin," Hackney said. "So we were expecting the same thing. If we could turn up our level of play, then we'd have a chance to put some points up. Our defense made some tremendous plays, so that definitely always helps."