By Josh Kraeger
Special to the Daily
North Clayton and Tri-Cities both came into Southern Crescent Stadium Friday night searching for their fifth win of the season but it was the Eagles who emerged victorious with a 20-14 overtime win over the Bulldogs.
The teams were evenly matched from the start, as the Tri-Cities' offense showed on their first possession of the game.
After a kickoff return brought the ball to the North Clayton 42-yard line, the Bulldogs led a methodical march down the field which culminated in a one-yard touchdown run by running back Gremichael Scott. After a blocked point-after attempt, the Bulldogs held a 6-0 lead with 8:22 to go in the first quarter.
On the ensuing possession, the Eagles seemed ready to challenge the Bulldog lead when sophomore LaDarrius Mathis broke free for a 23-yard gain, but a penalty a few plays later backed North Clayton up and forced a punt.
Tri-Cities looked poised for another successful possession but got a 15-yard chop block penalty called on them which brought the Bulldogs back to their own 20-yard line. On the next play, senior linebacker Amarlo Herrera intercepted a pass and took it to the end zone for the Eagles' first score of the night. Unlike Tri-Cities' attempt, North Clayton's point-after attempt was successful, giving them a 7-6 lead with 3:27 remaining in the opening quarter.
Herrera's interception return for the touchdown gave the Eagles a slight edge, but more importantly it changed the pace of the game for North Clayton.
"I think play changed when I returned the interception for the touchdown," Herrera said. "I was just trying to be a leader and get everyone on the same page and that's when our play turned up."
The rest of the Eagles took their cue from Herrera and turned up the intensity for the remainder of the half. North Clayton held the Bulldogs on the following possession and forced a Bulldog punt after a three-and-out.
The Eagles' offense led an attack of their own, pushing the ball down the field and successfully attempting two fourth-down conversions. The first was a six-yard pass that gave North Clayton a first down at the 28-yard line. Three plays later, the Eagles faced fourth down and four yards to go, and chose to run the ball this time. Their choice was a good one, as Mathis burned the defense on a 22-yard touchdown run.
The score gave North Clayton a more comfortable lead at 14-6, with 8:09 left in the second quarter. However, neither team would score for the rest of the half, with defense pacing each team's efforts. North Clayton senior defensive end Jack Ndem had a sack for a loss of 12 yards, and the Bulldogs' defensive efforts were marked by defensive back Xavier Robinson's lockdown coverage in the secondary.
The second half saw much of the same defensive efforts as the end of the first half, with each team having two possessions before anything took shape. The Bulldogs led a staged a steady rushing onslaught that ended with Tri-Cities' running back Rico Welch diving over the pylon for a seven-yard rushing touchdown. Quarterback Jonte Davis took the ball on a keeper and completed the two-point conversion to tie the score at 14-14 with 36.2 seconds left in the third quarter.
The fourth quarter was a tale of two defensive squads, with neither making progress throughout the quarter. The most significant play of the quarter occurred when the Bulldogs were on the North Clayton seven-yard line and sophomore Jeremy Daniels forced a fumble, which was recovered by the Eagles.
Tied at 14-14 at the end of regulation, the game went into overtime. The Bulldogs seemed poised to win. It was fourth down and one yard to go, but instead of going for the field goal, they went for the first down. This play cost them the game, as North Clayton stopped the run and forced the turnover on downs.
The Eagles seemed on the verge of a long field-goal attempt after an illegal procedure penalty pushed them back to the 16-yard line, but Mathis once again kept the Eagles in the game. This time, it was on a 13-yard run that netted an Eagles' first down. Two plays later, Mathis ran the ball in for the touchdown, securing the victory for North Clayton.
"We count on the defense, because the defense always steps it up," Mathis said. Mathis ended the game with 24 carries for 120 yards and two touchdowns. However, this game is just another one on the road to the playoffs for North Clayton.
"We have to make sure we execute every day at practice, hit the weights and watch film so we can come out and keep winning," Mathis said. Preparation will be key for the Eagles as they face another team with playoff hopes next week, the Mount Zion Bulldogs.
"To succeed we've got to come out working hard everyday, and come out playing four quarters hard, North Clayton style," Herrera said.
Herrera finished with 12 tackles and the interception return for the touchdown.
North Clayton (5-1) looks to keep their playoff hopes alive next week against Mount Zion (5-1) at Southern Crescent Stadium. Tri-Cities (4-3) will look to bounce back against struggling Morrow (1-5).
"We're going to the state championship," Herrera said. "That's what we play football for."