By Brian Paglia
North Clayton running back Michael Ross doesn't know how fast he is. He can't recite an impressive 40-yard dash time with which to his prove his speed. Eagles coach Rodney Hackney can only guess.
"He's probably a 4.4 guy," Hackney said. "He's more quick than fast."
With two big plays, Ross quickly made Mt. Zion's second-half comeback bid disppear. Ross scored two touchdowns of over 60 yards in the fourth quarter in the Eagle's 28-7 victory over Mt. Zion in a Region 4-AAAA game Friday at Southern Crescent Stadium, helping North Clayton secure a third-straight playoff appearance
"We came to play tonight," Ross said.
Big plays were certainly a difference-maker for North Clayton (6-1, 6-1), which remains tied with Creekside for second place, one game behind Lovejoy.
There was LaDarrius Mathis' 36-yard touchdown run, his second in the first quarter, that gave North Clayton an early 14-0 lead. The Eagles had 12 plays of at least 10 yards. Both Mathis (16 carries for 129 yards and two touchdowns) and Ross (11 carries for 133 yards and a touchdown) rushed for over 100 yards. The Eagles rolled up 354 yards of offense.
But North Clayton needed Ross' two touchdowns, for Mt. Zion (5-2, 5-2) came out of halftime rejuvenated and more potent on offense.
The Bulldogs took possession to start the third quarter and marched 73 yards in 12 plays. Austin Smith finished it with a desperate scramble from 10 yards out to cut North Clayton's lead to 14-7.
On the ensuing kickoff, Tremarv Sumlin misjudged the bounce of the kick and Mt. Zion's Rashaun Johnson fell on the ball before Sumlin could even get a hand on it. Mt. Zion took over at North Clayton's 17-yard line and seemed poised to tie the game.
"They always come back. We knew that," Hackney said. "And I know (Mt. Zion) coach (Jamie) Aull. I coached him, actually. So I knew he was going to have that fight in him and they weren't going to quit."
North Clayton escaped with no damage done when linebacker Amarlo Herrera sacked Mt. Zion quarterback Montel Buchanon on fourth-and-two.
Then Ross took over.
Looking to convert on a third-and-short situation, North Clayton ran a deceptive misdirection play to Ross. With a clear path through the middle of the offensive line, Ross took it. With Mt. Zion's secondary confounded, Ross burst past them and ran 74 yards untouched.
"Just a great run," Hackney said. "Great block by the offensive line."
After stopping Mt. Zion on fourth down, Hackney sensed an opportunity. On the Eagles' first play, Hackney called a play-action pass. Dennis Johnson (4-for-7 passing for 104 yards and a touchdown) faked the handoff, and there was Ross open behind the secondary.
Johnson threw a strike to Ross in stride. Sixty-three yards later, North Clayton led 28-7 with 6:17 left in the game.
"People told me good call, but the kids did it, and they made it happen," Hackney said. "It's the players and the coaches."
Mt. Zion struggled offensively without star running back Quartterrio Morgan, who sat out with hand and ankle injuries. Josh King (17 carries for 87 yards) became the primary ball-carrier in Morgan's absence, but he had just 29 yards rushing at halftime.
Buchanon was most effective on the ground, running for 64 yards on 16 carries. Yet, he threw two interceptions and completed just 7 of 19 passes for 53 yards. Smith came in averaging nearly 18 yards a catch, but caught just two passes for 13 yards.
"We didn't make big plays tonight," Aull said. "When the ball's in the air, we've got to go get it. Missed blocking assignments. When we did get things rolling, we'd do something stupid and have a penalty. There's blame to go around to everybody."