Spartans 35, Knights 21
Difference maker: West Hall senior A.J. Stephens carried the ball 14 times for 213 yards.
Stat that matters: The Spartans averaged more than 10 yards per carry with 26 rushes for 275 yards.
Turning point: Leading 28-21 early in the fourth quarter, Stephens scored on a 56-yard run for the game's final score.
Who's next: Johnson plays host to Walnut Grove on Friday; West Hall visits Oconee County on Friday in Watkinsville.
What's next: Johnson plays host to Walnut Grove on Friday; West Hall visits Oconee County on Friday in Watkinsville.
All of a sudden, West Hall is right in the thick of a playoff race in Region 8-AAA.
After struggling with an 0-4 start to the season, the Spartans (2-4, 2-0 Region 8B-AAA) have reeled off two straight to start subregion play, including Friday’s 35-21 win against Johnson in the Battle of Oakwood at Spartans Stadium.
West Hall sophomore quarterback Chandler Newton (123 passing yards and two touchdowns) said last Friday’s 38-9 win against Walnut Grove was exactly what his team needed with many players on the same field for the first time.
Now, the Spartans have three more subregion games left to position themselves for their first playoff berth since 2002.
“I think we under-looked ourselves early in the season,” said Newton, who scored the go-ahead touchdown on a run from the 5 late in the third quarter.
West Hall senior running back A.J. Stephens, who is playing football for the first time since seventh grade, put the game away with a 56-yard touchdown run in the first minute of the fourth period to give the Spartans a 35-21 lead.
Against an almost exclusively run-based offense of Johnson (0-6, 0-2), the two touchdown cushion was enough to put the game away. Stephens finished the game with 14 carries for 213 yards and a 45-yard reception in the second quarter.
Knowing that the playoffs are well within the realm of possibility is all the incentive that Stephens said the Spartans need going forward.
West Hall coach Mike Newton said the win came down to a pair of defensive stands against Johnson, which rushed for 355 yards, in the third quarter and in Spartans territory. To start the second half, the Knights used 12 running plays and took almost seven minutes off the clock, but came out of it without any points.
Johnson kept the drive alive with an 8-yard run by Cedric Harris on a fourth-and-4, but the drive ended four plays later when the Knights came up short on a fourth-and-1.
After Newton’s go-ahead touchdown run, West Hall’s defense came up big when Johnson started the drive on the West Hall 49 thanks to a pair of 10-yard penalties against the Spartans.
Mike Newton said he told his team at halftime that it needed two big second-half stops on defense. He got more than he asked for, as Johnson also came up inches short on a fourth-down attempt in the fourth quarter.
“We had three huge stops in the second half,” the coach said. “Our defense just did exactly what we needed and I’m so proud of them.
“This was just a great team victory.”
Johnson coach Paul Friel agreed that those missed opportunities in the second half were the deciding factor in a game that went back and forth in the first half.
“We’re all disappointed to lose, but we’ve got to come back to work on Monday and get ready for another game,” Friel said.
Once again, Johnson was led by a great rushing effort by junior Cedric Harris, who finished with 207 yards and a touchdown. Much like his entire season, he rarely went down on first contact, including a 33-yard run in the first quarter when he dragged a defender for close to 10 yards. He scored on a run from the 3 second quarter.
“Cedric’s a great kid, a great leader and has a great future playing football ahead of him,” Friel said.
A.J. Millwood finished with 22 carries and 121 yards for the Knights. He scored on a run from the 4 late in the first quarter to tie the score at 7-all. Then he scored on a run from the 10 with 9:30 left in the first half to give the Knights a 14-7 lead.
West Hall’s first long touchdown of the game came in the final minute before halftime when Rico Jones took the kickoff and returned it 67 yards for a touchdown and a 21-14 lead going into the half.
On West Hall’s first drive of the second half after its huge defensive stop, the quarterback Newton went to work with some great game management. On a third-and-8, he hit Cameron Johnson for a 44-yard gain. Three plays later, Newton kept the ball for a 3-yard gain on third-and-2. On the ninth play of the drive, Newton scored on his run from the 5.
Zach English scored West Hall’s first touchdown on a 2-yard pass from Newton in the first quarter.
With the win, the Spartans won their first game in the Battle of Oakwood since a 56-55 victory in 2008.
“This game is always close, but we don’t want this to be a rivalry anymore,” Chandler Newton said. “We want to own Oakwood.”