Riverside Military coach Scot Sloan would have loved a second-half repeat on Friday night of previous Region 8-AA wins against Rabun County and Banks County.
After a scoreless first half, a defensive shutout and two offensive touchdowns, which led to the two previous wins, would have spelled a win over North Oconee at Maginnis Field.
However, North Oconee senior defensive end Ryan Smith caught a pass batted in the air by his teammate Trey Hale and returned it for a 40-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown.
His defensive score, along with a 9-yard touchdown run by Titans senior running back Brandon Whitlock, led to a 17-0 win over the Eagles at Maginnis Field.
"It’s frustrating because we’ve been a second-half team this season," Sloan said. "We managed to get a defensive shutout and two touchdowns on offense in both those wins against Banks County and Rabun County.
"But trailing only 3-0 at the time, that tipped pass they returned for a touchdown really broke our back."
Though the Eagles lost, Sloan doesn’t want to make too much out of one game. Riverside’s coach points out that both the third and fourth seed to the playoffs from 8-AA last year were two-loss teams.
"The bottom line is we just have to improve," Sloan said.
North Oconee, now 4-0 for the first time in school history and 3-0 in Region 8-AA, set the tone with constant pressure on Eagles (2-2, 2-1) quarterback Alex O’Donnell. Not only did Smith score on a touchdown, but he also put together four sacks as part of a North Oconee defensive effort that held Riverside to minus-16 yards rushing and 90 yards of total offense.
"Our defense played exceptionally well tonight," Titans coach Terry Tuley said. "Ryan did such an outstanding job that you would have thought he was part of their backfield."
"We set the tone up front and won the game on the line," Smith said.
Penalties also played a major part in the outcome. After Riverside was hit with a personal foul call late in the fourth quarter and leading 10-0, North Oconee set up first-and-10 at the Eagles 18. Two runs from Marcus Alford and a 7-yard run from Whitlock set up a 9-yard score on the next play to make the score 17-0.
The Eagles were flagged for 75 yards worth of penalties on the night; North Oconee drew 69 yards worth of penalties.
Even though Riverside was held scoreless, it had plenty of scoring opportunities. In the first quarter the Eagles had back-to-back drives that started inside the North Oconee 30, both as a result of blocked punts. The first time the Eagles took over inside the Titans’ 30, the drive stalled after passes from O’Donnell on third and fourth downs were dropped by open receivers.
After Riverside blocked the second North Oconee punt, the Eagles took over on the Titans’ 28. However, North Oconee made another defensive stand with sacks of O’Donnell on second and third down, forcing the Eagles back near midfield.
"The problems on offense for us tonight were a little bit of everything," Sloan said.
Whitlock led North Oconee with 20 carries for 60 yards and a touchdown. Titans receiver Matt Sims had 78 total offensive yards, including a 48-yard reception on the final play of the first half that was marked out just shy of the goal line.
Seth Sloan led Riverside with five catches for 70 yards.
Riverside visits East Jackson and North Oconee plays host to Banks County next Friday.