By Josh Kraeger
Special to the Daily
In a hard-fought game with playoff implications, the North Clayton Eagles came out on top with a 12-7 region victory over the Jonesboro Cardinals Friday night at Southern Crescent Stadium.
The Eagles came out running, literally, as their offense ran the ball five consecutive times on their first drive.
The yards were mostly accounted for by sophomore running back LaDarrius Mathis, but as he ran the ball on the fifth play of the drive, he went down hard.
Losing Mathis was tough for the Eagles, but they were quick to bounce back. On the next play, senior running back Michael Ross bolted out of the backfield and ran 29 yards for the touchdown. The Eagles missed the point-after attempt and held a 6-0 lead over the Cardinals with 8:35 left to play in the opening quarter.
However, Jonesboro would not skip a beat.
Sophomore sensation Cameron Sutton bobbled the North Clayton kickoff, but somehow still managed to take it the distance for the first Jonesboro score of the night. The point-after attempt was successful, giving Jonesboro a slim 7-6 lead with 8:19 left in the first quarter, but the game was still up for grabs.
The Cardinals punted the ball and put the Eagles on their own nine-yard line. Junior quarterback Dennis Johnson and Ross led North Clayton down the field on an 11-play drive that took nearly six minutes off the clock and spanned 86 yards. They were stopped by the Jonesboro defense on fourth and one yard to go, and the Cardinals took over.
The North Clayton defense, notorious for causing turnovers, was quick to provide a show of their own, forcing a fumble on a missed pitch intended for Jonesboro senior running back Ryan Brown.
The fumble was recovered in the end zone for North Clayton's second touchdown of the night. The Eagles opted to attempt a two-point conversion, but failed and the score was 12-7 in favor of the Eagles with 2:30 remaining in the first quarter.
The rest of the quarter, as well as the rest of the game was marked by solid defensive efforts from each squad.
In the third quarter, the Eagles drove the ball from their own 28-yard line to the Cardinals' six-yard line on an 11-play drive that had every indication of a score in the making.
The Cardinals' defense stepped it up, as Sutton intercepted a halfback pass in the end zone. The pass, thrown by Ross, could've put the Eagles ahead 19-7. Instead, the Cardinals came up big and had the ball on their own 20-yard line.
Jonesboro's joy was short-lived, as North Clayton sophomore defensive back Brenton Hawkins intercepted Jonesboro junior quarterback Cedric Nettles' pass four plays later.
The defensive stands continued for each team, with certain players stepping up their play and the intensity of the game.
North Clayton's defense won the battle, and the Eagles won their seventh game of the season. Senior linebacker Amarlo Herrera and senior defensive end Jack Ndem paced the Eagles' defensive efforts, assisting eachother in sacking the quarterback twice for a combined loss of eight yards.
Herrera finished with 12 tackles, including the two sacks for a loss of eight yards and two tackles for a combined loss of eight yards. Ndem finished with five tackles, including the two sacks for a loss of eight yards.
"We really stepped it up big tonight," Herrera said. "We stepped our game up as a team, and that's why we came out on top."
The Eagles did just that, combining for 288 yards of total offense. Ross shouldered the bulk of the touches for North Clayton, finishing with 96 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. He also had four receptions for 83 yards.
"When number two went down, I had to step it up big, and I did," Ross said.
Johnson paced the offense at quarterback, finishing with four completions on nine attempts for 83 yards. Mathis racked up 29 yards before his injury, and freshman running backs Christopher Weems and Cedric Lawrence filled in for Mathis with a combined 15 carries for 68 yards.
The loss of Mathis will mean the majority of the touches will go to Ross, Lawrence and Weems for the remainder of the season. As far as this affecting their game plan, Herrera thought it had big implications.
"It's going to affect us big time because he's our main back," Herrera said. "It's up to our young guys to step up big for us and fill his shoes."
North Clayton (7-1) will look for its young players to step it up next Friday night at Tara Stadium against Forest Park (2-6). Jonesboro (3-5) will look to end their losing streak on senior night Saturday at Tara Stadium against Morrow (1-7).
When asked how North Clayton would prepare for the playoffs and next week's matchup, Herrera took a page out of Forrest Gump's book.
"We're going to work harder now than we've worked all year long," Herrera said. "And that's all I have to say about that."