With Devin Watson in shorts on the sideline Friday night, East Hall didn’t have the firepower to keep up with Jackson County.
The standout Vikings senior quarterback was out with an injury as the Panthers piled up 24 points in the second quarter en route to a 24-0 halftime lead and a 31-6 victory on Friday at East Hall Stadium.
The win ended Jackson County’s three-game losing streak to start the season and was the second straight defeat for East Hall.
“We’ve been knocking on the door the last three weeks to put a game together and finish it,” Jackson County coach Benji Harrison said. “I’m extremely proud of our defense. They just showed up, and I thought it was a continuation of last week’s second half (against Rabun County).”
Junior running back Malik Tuck scored on a 3-yard run and a 4-yard pass from Jacob Lewis during the Panthers’ second-quarter barrage. Tuck finished with 83 rushing yards on 14 carries and 21 more yards on four receptions.
“We responded real well in the second quarter,” Tuck said. “We had to come out and fight hard and win.”
Lewis was 15 of 25 passing for 148 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Jackson County senior quarterback added 50 yards rushing.
The onslaught began when Lewis found a wide-open Adrian Parsons down the left sideline for a 46-yard score and a 7-0 edge just 64 seconds into the second quarter.
Following an East Hall turnover on downs at the Jackson County 40, the Panthers drove 60 yards in nine plays, capped by Tuck’s touchdown run.
“We got tired and we made some mistakes on defense,” East Hall coach Bryan Gray said. “And offensively we couldn’t get the ball moving. I was afraid of that. I knew we were throwing people in for the first time.”
Gray said he would check with doctors about Watson’s status next week but that he’s not sure who among his injured guys will be back on the field.
“Hopefully we can get a couple of kids back next week,” Gray said. “And if not, this crew better be ready to line up, and let’s go play.”
Jackson County linebacker Mason Williams pulled down an interception on the second play of the Vikings’ next drive to set up a 26-yard Easton Tuggle field goal with 3:20 to play in the first half.
Tuck’s touchdown catch with 21.8 seconds left in the second quarter punctuated a 12-play, 66-yard march for the Panthers and made it 24-0 at the break.
“The second quarter was huge,” Harrison said. “And fortunately we had a good second quarter because we didn’t play a real good third and fourth quarter on offense. And sometimes that’s the nature of this offense. You get hot in spurts.”
The Vikings started wide receiver Jiel Vargas at quarterback and ended up using wide receiver/kicker/punter Junior Lee more as signal-caller as the game wore on. In their first varsity action as quarterbacks, they combined to go 16 for 34 passing for 115 yards and two interceptions. Vargas finished with 45 rushing yards and 20 receiving yards, with Lee adding 21 receiving yards and 18 rushing yards.
East Hall took advantage of a short field following a Juwan Merritt third-quarter interception, taking six plays to score from the Jackson County 17. A Jacques Ash 16-yard run set up Vargas’ 2-yard touchdown run with 2:47 remaining in the third quarter. After a delay of game penalty, Ash was stopped at the 10 on a two-point conversion attempt to leave the margin at 24-6.
The Vikings offense roared to life in the fourth quarter, registering 11 first downs and twice getting inside the Panthers 20-yard line.
But the first of those two long drives ended with Jackson County’s Tyrek Shelton intercepting a pass and taking it 87 yards the other way for a score that pushed it to the final margin.
“They’re a good team. They’ve got a lot of skill kids,” Gray said. “And we fought.”
Then the Panthers held East Hall on fourth down with about a minute to go at the Jackson County 11.
Gray said his guys can take positives from Friday.
“Our kids played hard, showed a lot of heart,” Gray said. “I think we’ve got something to build on. Next week we’re going to fix some things, and we’ll be ready to roll.”
Jackson County (1-3) hosts county rival Jefferson to begin Region 8-AAA action as East Hall (1-2) welcomes Lumpkin County to kick off Region 7-AAA play next Friday.
“We did not need to limp into region,” Harrison said. “The kids have constantly believed. They never really showed me signs of questioning or doubt. You can only solidify that with a win.”