It was late in the second half when one of the Gordon Lee football players on the sideline remarked, "this is the strangest football game I've ever played in” - and it couldn’t have been a more accurate assessment.
Playing a rare Thursday night game in the heart of downtown Atlanta, the Trojans took the field at historic Lakewood Stadium for their first-ever meeting with the B.E.S.T. Academy Eagles and were promptly greeted with a deafening round of silence.
Due to COVID-19 protocols set by Atlanta Public Schools, no fans were allowed for the contest, making for a somewhat eerie feeling for both teams as they squared off in the massive, 10,000-seat, concrete stadium.
However, if fans been allowed, there's no doubt none of those seats would have been sat in during a tense fourth quarter.
After seeing a 14-0 halftime lead cut to just six points late in the game, a tired Trojan defense found the wherewithal to come up with one final fourth-down stop to seal a 14-8 victory and keep their hopes alive for a home playoff game in three weeks.
“I don’t have any energy left in me at all,” said a mentally exhausted head coach Josh Groce afterward. “But like I told our coaches after the game, we found a way to win. As ugly as it was, we found a way to pull it out and that speaks volumes about the maturity of our football team. You can't bring a young football team into this kind of environment, when it's dead and there’s no sound. It takes a mature football team to pull out a win. This was big.”
The Gordon Lee defense had good reason to be exhausted as well as they were on the field for a whopping 18:26 in the second half.
An incredible 20-play, 79-yard drive by the Eagles took up the entire third quarter and two plays of the fourth before fullback Khaliq Brock outran the Trojan defense the final four yards to the pylon. A conversion pass sliced Gordon Lee’s lead to six with just 11:02 to play.
The Trojans would pick up a first down on their ensuing possession - their first possession of the half - but coughed up the ball on fourth-and-short just inside B.E.S.T. territory and the Eagles began a potential game-winning drive from its own 36 with 8:10 remaining.
Gordon Lee’s Kameron Oliver made a huge defensive play on a deep pass to chase down a receiver out of the backfield and bat the ball out of his hands on a play that would have given the Eagles a first down in the red zone.
Six-foot-five receiver Kevien Zachary would come up with a big 13-yard catch on fourth-and-nine to move the ball to the Gordon Lee 31, but a holding call would back it up to midfield. Amir Robinson pulled in a 10-yard reception to the 39, but the Gordon Lee defense forced an incomplete pass from quarterback Da’von Hixson and, following a 5-yard offsides call on the Trojans, B.E.S.T. faced fourth-and-13 from the Gordon Lee 34.
Hixson was flushed out of the pocket and appeared to have a open running lane for potential first down. However, he spotted his favorite target near the endzone and floated a pass downfield. But Gordon Lee defensive back Jacob Neal was in a perfect position to knock the ball away from Zachary at the last second to finally put the Gordon Lee offense back on the field with 2:35 to go.
Two runs would move the ball to the 43 and on third-and-one, with the Eagles out of timeouts, Bo Rhudy plowed ahead for a game-sealing 12-yard run. Quarterback Blake Groce would then kneel down twice in victory formation to move Gordon Lee to 2-1 in Region 6-A with two games remaining on the schedule.
“The entire third quarter,” Groce said, shaking his head. “I think that's probably a first in my coaching career. We had a couple of big pass break-ups there late, which was great. We bent, but we didn't break.
“We’re a zone coverage team and there's going to be times that other teams are going to catch the football, but we have to make tackles. There in the third and fourth quarters, we missed a lot of tackles and we've got to fix that.”
The Trojans nearly doubled the Eagles’ offensive output in the first half, outgaining them 157-85 with 146 of those yards coming on the ground.
After a promising opening drive sputtered following a holding call in the red zone, the Gordon Lee defense stepped up to stop the Eagles on downs at the Trojans’ 30-yard line. An exchange of punts followed before Gordon Lee got the ball back at their own 49 early in the second quarter.
A 17-yard run by Cade Peterson and a big 26-yard burst by Nate Dunfee set the table for Rhudy, who plowed straight ahead and broke the plane of the goal from two yards out. Peterson caught a conversion pass to give the Trojans an 8-0 lead with 8:37 left before halftime.
Gordon Lee’s defense made another fourth-down stop near midfield on the Eagles’ next possession and the Trojans needed just six plays to score on its ensuing drive. A huge 32-yard, third-down run by Dunfee and a 10-yard run by Rhudy set up Peterson from six yards out with 1:25 left in the half. A two-point conversion attempt was no good.
The Trojans then stopped the Eagles one final time on downs at the B.E.S.T. 41 as Hayden Walker threw Hixson for an eight-yard sack on the final play of the half.
Gordon Lee rushed 27 times in the ballgame for 199 yards, but had just 11 offensive plays over the final two quarters. Peterson finished with 80 yards on 12 carries. Dunfee had 79 big yards on just four carries and Rhudy added 30 yards on six carries. Dunfee also caught the lone completed pass of the night from Groce, who went 1 of 4 for 11 yards.
Nique Bell had eight carries for 41 yards for the Eagles (4-3, 2-1) and Brock picked up 37 tough yards on 10 carries. Hixson had 23 yards rushing on 12 attempts and ended the night 12 of 23 through the air for 114 yards. Zachary led the way with seven catches for 71 yards.
Gordon Lee (7-1) will be back at home for the final time in the regular season next Friday night as they host Armuchee before they travel to rival Trion on Nov. 20 to end the regular season.
“We’ve got two more games to play and the next one's the biggest one,” Groce added.