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As Riverside coach Gary Downs said after Friday night’s game, “it wasn’t pretty.” But surrounded by a jubilant bunch of Eagles after a 23-14 win over Georgia Military College at Maginnis Field, the second-year coach had plenty of reasons to smile.
“We weren’t competitive last year until late in the season,” Downs said. “We’re competitive now. We started with a good scrimmage and we were competitive last week (in a 26-24 loss to Whitefield Academy). And we’ve got room to improve. We had four turnovers tonight, but we got the win.”
The Eagles were able to overcome their miscues and get the Military Bowl victory thanks to a slew of timely big plays. Among them: JeJaun McCalston’s 37-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter that gave Riverside (1-1) a 16-7 lead, and Brandon Gant’s forced fumble when the Eagles were nursing a two-point advantage and Georgia Military was deep in Riverside territory.
But perhaps no play was bigger than a third-down conversion that followed shortly after.
With about six minutes remaining in the game and the Eagles leading 16-14, starting Riverside quarterback Avery Cagle was forced out of the game when he slipped on a second-down run and injured his shoulder, leaving the Eagles with a third-and-9 and in need of a quarterback.
Enter Collin Pettell. The junior wide receiver/defensive end has two years of varsity experience at quarterback, and Downs didn’t hesitate to call his number in a crucial situation.
Pettell took the shotgun snap, set up in the pocket and quickly zipped a pass to Raleigh Beougher on a crossing route for a 19-yard gain that kept the chains — and the clock — moving.
“Collin’s a good passer when he has time,” Downs said. “So we didn’t have any hesitation. We needed that first down.”
From there, Joseph Garruba took over with a series of physical runs that moved the ball to the 1. That set up Pettell for a 1-yard, fourth-down touchdown dive that clinched the outcome with 1:46 remaining.
Garruba led the Eagles with 71 rushing yards and a second-quarter touchdown on 19 carries. He also played a role on a Riverside defense that forced five turnovers and clamped down on a Georgia Military rushing attack that ran for 268 yards last week in a 28-7 win over Glascock County.
Early on, it looked like the Bulldogs would have similar success against Riverside.
On its first drive of the game, Georgia Military marched 60 yards on 12 plays behind a power running game. After that, the yards were harder to come by, and the Bulldogs finished with 173 rushing yards on 47 carries.
“We tried out a new defense,” Downs said, “and they gutted us early. It took some faith to stick with it, but we did and we got better as the game went on.”
The win was the first for Riverside in four meetings between the schools. The rivalry has only been contested 29 times, but dates back over a century.
Beougher finished with 56 receiving yards on three catches and 23 rushing yards on three carries, while Christopher Howard led the receiving corps with 63 yards on three receptions.
Georgia Military’s Colby Lawrence finished with a game-high 121 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
Riverside opens Region 8-AA play next week when it hosts Washington-Wilkes. Georgia Military is off next week before traveling to Wilkinson County on Sept. 27.