No matter which way you cut it, Friday night’s 16th all-time meeting between in-county rivals Newton and Eastside will hold a lot of value for both programs.
While the final outcome will not have any direct effect on playoff chances for the two schools, what it will supply the winner with is momentum, something both Newton head coach Camiel Grant and Eastside head coach Troy Hoff will gladly welcome by any means necessary.
For the Rams (1-0), a win over the Eagles (0-1) would check multiple boxes. A victory would give the Rams back the all-time series lead at 8-7-1 after relinquishing it last season with a 27-20 loss. A win would also give the Rams’ senior class payback in what will be their final game against the Eagles.
But most importantly, a win will give the Rams a 2-0 start to the season and back-to-back wins for the first time since November of 2017.
A victory Friday night for the Eagles would snap a two-game losing streak dating back to last season, something they haven’t done since 2014. The Eagles would also avoid their first 0-2 start to a season since 2005.
The Eagles find themselves in this dilemma following a disappointing 58-21 loss at the hands of Ola High School last Friday night, their first season-opening loss in 14 years.
A win for the Eagles would give them back-to-back victories over the Rams for the first time since the 2012-13 seasons, but coach Hoff isn’t one to make a big deal about the record books. Instead, his focus lies solely on getting his team prepared for battle.
“We have to coach better this week,” Hoff said. “We have to see improvement within our guys. Part of that is growing pains of a lot of young and inexperienced players, but that is still not an excuse. We want to see them get better this week in practice and see them play on Friday.”
While Friday will mark coach Grant’s first time coaching against the Eagles from the head coaching position, the veteran coach is no stranger to their cross-town rival. Well aware as to what is at stake for the Eagles, Grant is already expecting there to be some added motivation on their sideline.
“I know the coaching staff that they have over there and the type of leader they have with Troy,” Grant said. “They will definitely be extra motivated because they are a competitive and well-coached bunch. Starting off 0-2 for anybody, you dread that. I know they’ll be doing everything they can to get prepared.”
Important first quarter
Step No. 1 for Grant and his Rams will be to maintain their composure in what will be a raucous environment, something he knows all too well from past experiences from his role as an assistant.
“I think first, being able to sustain through that emotional wave that is going to start the game is key,” Grant said. “Every year that I’ve been here, over the last 10-11 years, that game always has a lot of emotion to start it. Being able to ride through that and be able to maintain your focus (is important).”
From an energy standpoint, coach Hoff is expecting a lot out of his Eagles. Despite letting last Friday night’s game slip away in the second half, Hoff commended his team’s energy and grit from start to finish.
“Our energy level was good last Friday night,” Hoff said. “It wasn’t about energy, it was about execution. People talk about energy in rivalry games. That emotion is only going to carry you for a short time. You’re going to have to have sustained effort for how you’re playing throughout the night and how you execute. That’s probably more important for us.”
Great opening act
The Rams began their 2019 season with a dominant 45-0 victory over cross-town Alcovy, a game that featured several standouts on both sides of the ball.
Senior quarterback Neal Howard completed 18 of his 28 pass attempts for 218 yards and two touchdowns. Senior wideout Jerrol Hines was responsible for 104 of Howard’s yards and one touchdown on four catches. He also rushed four times for 21 yards and scored a second TD.
On a Rams’ offense with standouts at seemingly every position, Grant was thrilled to watch Hines, who sometimes flies under the radar, have a big game on offense.
“That was big,” Grant said. “We have a lot of guys getting a lot of attention and he’s one of the ones that sometimes goes under the radar, maybe on a statewide scale. It wasn’t surprising by any stretch. It’s good for him to go out and play that way to score some validation and maybe have some people take a little bit more notice about the type of player that he is.”
Robert Lewis caught Howard’s second touchdown and finished with 61 yards on five receptions. The running back trio of Josh Hardeman, Quincy Cullins and Keaton Hambright combined to rush for 121 yards and one touchdown.
Defensively, the Rams were led by Jarvari Smith’s 10 tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble. Tyon Bigby pitched in with a 5-tackle effort with three tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks.
Against the Eagles, the Rams’ defense will have their hands full with senior quarterback Noah Cook, barring any setback from an injury he sustained just prior to halftime last Friday night.
As of Monday, Hoff said he did not have any medical updates, but that hasn’t stopped Grant and Rams defensive coordinator Spencer Fortson game planning against him.
“They are are a much better football team just because (Cook) is their quarterback,” Grant said. “You try to look at what he does well. He does a lot of things well and you can’t take away everything. It’s just trying to be smart about what are the most dangerous things and putting ourselves in a position to make those things difficult.”
Prior to Cook’s injury on Friday, the senior completed 10 of his 17 pass attempts for 126 yards and threw two TD passes, both to wideout Jeffery Haynes.
The Eagles were also without running back Terrence Reid, who was held out with an injury.
Despite the setbacks, with a healthy Cook in the game for most of the first half, Hoff saw his offense move the ball with effectiveness, something he hopes to see happen against the Rams on Friday.
“There were times that we played good football,” Hoff said. “The first couple of series we were in rhythm and moved the ball. Noah had a good half of football. It was unfortunate that he wasn’t able to finish the game, but he was playing well.”
The Eagles’ defense will have the tall task of facing arguably and even tougher offense in Week 2. Hoff based his assessment of the Rams’ offensive attack mostly on the tremendous amount of speed they possess.
“They play fast, they play physical, and to a man, they are going to be one of the faster teams we’ve seen in a long time, if not the fastest,” Hoff said. “With that, that brings some challenges. They can distribute the ball to a lot of different guys, so they make you play things straight up. They definitely make your defend the entire field.”
In 2018, the Eagles’ defense held Howard to 13 of 20 passing and intercepted him twice. On offense, the Eagles rushed the ball 43 times to just nine pass attempts from Cook, who threw for a season-low 38 yards.
In order to defeat the Eagles, Grant has placed a big emphasis on third down execution on both sides of the ball, as well as special teams. Haynes scored on a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown last Friday against Ola.
“I think for us, being able to convert on third down and keep their offense off of the field will be key,” Grant said. “Then play well in the special teams. Don’t allow them to make plays in the special teams units. If we can do those things, I think we’ll have a good chance to be successful.”
Based off of last Friday’s loss, Hoff has his eye on similar aspects of the game that his team will need to clean up in order to have a chance to defeat the Rams.
“There were some key points where we have to do better,” Hoff said. “Execution on offense, getting off the field on third down… there were at least four drives of nine plus plays (last Friday). So when you look at it, obviously we need to play better defense and execute on those things.”
The Rams will serve as the home team on Friday with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. at Homer Sharp Stadium.