Coming off a decisive loss at Northeast Guilford last fall, Eastern Alamance’s varsity football team knew it would be in for a battle Friday night as they opened Mid-State Conference play against the Rams at Fred Brady Stadium. And while Northeast proved they came to Mebane to play by scoring the game’s first touchdown, the Eagles took advantage of five lost turnovers by the Rams, along with some big plays from their quick-strike offense, to claim a 42-28 victory.
The win improves Eastern’s overall record to 5-0, and its conference mark to 1-0.
“It was a game of turnovers. And it was a game where we capitalized on turnovers,” Eastern head coach John Kirby said moments after the game. “It’s hard to pinpoint. I do think that Northeast is a scary football team. They’re very athletic. They’re very well-coached. They’re disciplined.”
Northeast Guilford took the game’s opening kickoff and marched the length of the field in just under six minutes, scoring the first touchdown to take a 6-0 lead. After NGHS running back Trevon Hester ran twice for a first down early on, quarterback Clayton Patterson converted a third down play for the Rams by taking off on a scramble after the Eastern defense collapsed the offensive pocket.
Patterson’s first down moved the Rams into Eagles territory, and Northeast pushed even closer to the goal line on a tough 9-yard pushing run by Hester, reminiscent of a maul in the sport of rugby.
After converting a 3rd-and-2 at the Eastern 13 yard-line, Hester scored a touchdown to give the Rams a 6-0 lead at the 6:07 mark of the first quarter. Northeast’s extra point attempt was no good, but for the first time in the 2019 season, the Eagles trailed.
“They took that opening drive and went down and scored. That’s the first time that’s happened this year. That’s the first time we’ve been behind. How do you respond?” Kirby said.
The Eagles came roaring back on the arm of senior quarterback Austin Bryant, who launched a pass to sophomore wide receiver standout Darius Kane for a 30-yard gain. Eastern moved into Rams real estate, but Northeast came up with a huge fourth down stuff, providing the visitors from McLeansville a momentary surge of momentum - the ball with the lead against the Eagles.
It was lonely momentary surge, however, because on the very next play, Eastern’s defense recovered a Northeast fumble at the Rams 29-yard line. And on EAHS’s subsequent offensive play, senior running back Colby May, making his first start of the year after missing the opening four games following a collarbone injury, raced 29 yards to the end zone for the tying score. Jackson Poteat’s extra point gave the Eagles a 7-6 lead a little over nine minutes into the game.
Hester once again got rolling for the Rams, rushing twice between the tackles to push past the 50-yard line, but the Eagles got another fortunate break, recovering a fumble with a little over a minute left in the opening quarter. Following a pass interference call on Northeast defensive back Joshua Butler-Garner, who had his back to the ball on Bryant’s deep pass to Kane, the EAHS sophomore receiving standout broke free over the middle and hauled in a perfect pass from Bryant for a 43-yard touchdown, which gave the Eagles a 14-6 lead heading into the second quarter.
Eastern forced a punt on Northeast Guilford’s ensuing offensive possession, but Rams cornerback Zeke Nicholson intercepted Bryant at the NGHS 38 with 9:38 left before halftime. Once again Northeast began a march, converting a 4th-and-short, but once again the fumble bug bit the Rams, as Joey Texeira forced the ball loose, and Tyler Pendygraft made a recovery after the ball had been kicked several yards downfield.
Tight end Lanier Rice made a wide-open catch over the middle for the Eagles to push EAHS to the Rams 20, but May suffered his first fumble of the year when he dropped the ball and Northeast recovered at its own 5-yard line.
“I thought in the first half, we capitalized on the mistakes that they made,” Kirby said. “We made some mistakes as well. We get the ball down here close, and we fumble. You can’t do that if you’re going to go far. We’ve got to learn from that. We’ve got to protect the football. It’s there for a reason. It’s there for us to protect it, and put it in the end zone.”
The Eagles and Rams had traded the ball, but Eastern gained nearly 70 yards of field position in the exchange. EAHS’s defense forced a 3-yard loss on first down and ultimately forced a Rams punt, making the visitors kick from out of their own end zone. Taking control of the ball at the NGHS 22-yard line with 4:47 left in the half, the Eagles embarked on their third scoring march of the night.
It began with Bryant hitting Rice with another shot over the middle on a 3rd-and-4 play, which moved the Eagles down to Northeast’s 5-yard line and a 1st-and-goal. May took the ball twice to push it down to the 1, and then smashed across the goal line on his third straight carry on third down, propelling the Eagles to a 20-6 halftime lead.
“We challenged our guys at halftime,” Kirby said. “We were winning 20-6 at the half, and we were kind of down, because we didn’t feel like we played well. But we played against a pretty tough football team.”
“Our offensive line was tested up front (by the Rams),” Kirby added. “(Rams defensive lineman Anthony Hairston) No. 56, we were trying to figure out where he was to make our (line) call, because he factored so much into it. And I think we played a team that was very quick off the ball, and that gave us some problems in some areas. I think we figured it out early in the second half.”
Eastern wasted little time asserting itself in the second half, taking control of the game with a quick touchdown early in the third quarter. Kane caught his second wide-open touchdown of the game - this one covering 22 yards - to make the score 26-6. A subsequent 2-point conversion reception by Rice gave the Eagles a commanding 28-6 advantage at the 8:52 mark of the third quarter. Kane produced another 100-yard receiving game for the Eagles.
Following a fumbled punt by Northeast Guilford - the fourth lost fumble of the game for the Rams - Elijah Burnette came through with a 43-yard touchdown catch that gave Eastern a 35-6 cushion just 19 seconds after the Eagles scored their first touchdown of the second half.
“In the second half, we took that opening drive and we went down and scored. And then we were able to capitalize on yet another mistake with a home run ball,” Kirby said.
Caleb Hester came through moments later with an interception for the Eagles at the 7:45 mark - Northeast’s fifth turnover of the night. And while the Eagles would be forced to punt on their ensuing offensive possession, Bryant would eventually throw another touchdown pass - this one a 25-yarder to fellow senior A.J. Camuto - that gave the Eagles a 42-6 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The pass to Camuto was Bryant's fourth touchdown pass of the evening. He finished the game with 242 passing yards.
But despite their vast margin, Northeast Guilford refused to give up, avoiding the running clock and making the final score competitive by scoring 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.
“We’re almost at that 42-point (running clock lead), and we let it go again,” Kirby mentioned.
A second touchdown by Hester for NGHS in the first minute of the final period made the score 42-12, which was followed by a 2-point conversion reception by Jaydon Hall. Later, Eddie Monyan broke off a 70-yard touchdown run and Hall caught a second 2-point conversion to make the count 42-22.
After Eastern lost its second fumble of the night, a short scramble by Justin Wilson, who had entered the game at quarterback for the Rams, made the final score 42-28.
Although the Eagles were outscored by the Rams 22-0 in the fourth quarter, Eastern’s collection of big plays on both sides of the ball over the first three quarters made all the difference.
“You can’t say enough about those guys right there (Northeast Guilford). They kept coming at us,” Kirby said. “I told (NGHS head) Coach (Earl) Bates we didn’t want to play them again in the first round of the playoffs, because that’s usually what happens. We’ll move on, and hopefully they’ll keep winning, and we won’t have to see each other for a while.”
“You’ve got to have games like this in order to get better. And I thought we did (get better),” Kirby added. “Overall, the aim tonight was to win a football game. We played one of the top-tier teams in our conference tonight. We’re excited to win.”
The unbeaten Eagles will continue Mid-State Conference play next week with their first road game in more than a month - an encounter with league rival Person County in Roxboro.