South Forsyth’s football team knew they belonged, and they were playing like it.
In the first half of the War Eagles’ game against No. 8 ranked Hillgrove on Friday, they were on a mission, doing exactly what they had to do to attain a statement upset win by forcing key stops and turnovers, even taking a slim lead midway through the first quarter.
By the end of the first half, though, South was trailing by one score, but with the help of three pass interference penalties, South was in the red zone with in great position to tie it up before the break with under 30 seconds left.
But what followed ultimately helped take the War Eagles from a confident underdog to a team just hoping to tie it up. On fourth down, a penalty on South moved the ball back, and when kicker Willan Botta attempted a 43-yard field goal, Hillgrove blocked it and returned it for a touchdown with just 14 seconds left. From that point on, nothing was the same.
“That's the difference in the whole game,” South head coach Jeff Arnette said. “That was a big turning point. But the thing is, we've overcome two touchdown deficits this year.”
That’s certainly true, but although South (3-2) made some plays in the second half to help mount another potential comeback, the War Eagles couldn’t quite take advantage of them, falling to the Hawks 42-19 to wrap up their non-region schedule.
“We didn't play very well,” Arnette said. “That's the first time all year I've been able to say we just didn't play well. We've not played well in little spurts, but tonight, we just did a lot of things. We didn't tackle well, we didn't play special teams very good (and) we didn't protect the quarterback.”
Indeed, keeping South quarterback Joe Slott upright was quite the challenge for the War Eagles’ offensive line. Hillgrove’s defensive line was led the No. 1 college recruit in Georgia, six-foot-five defensive end Myles Murphy. The Clemson commit created havoc for Slott.
But despite South’s offense struggling to get rolling early, the defense was doing its part. Hillgrove missed a 43-yard field goal on its first drive, and Josh Green halted another series with an interception. At the beginning of the second quarter, Gavin Morris stripped Hillgrove quarterback Matthew McCravy and recovered the ball, and South finally took advantage with a 63-yard touchdown from Slott to Colby Cruz, giving the War Eagles their only lead at 7-0 with 10:23 left to the half.
And Cruz’s contributions didn’t stop there – on the Hawks’ ensuing drive, he caught McCravy’s second interception, leaving the home crowd chanting his name.
“We talk about it all the time: When we play like we can play, we can play with about anybody,” Arnette said.
Hillgrove finally began to find its footing towards the end of the first half, though, with McCravy tossing two touchdown passes to Victor Aliu and Trevarus Walker to make it 14-7 with 2:38 left in the half.
After Hillgrove’s return touchdown made it 21-7 at halftime, South went three and out and punted to Walker, who avoided tackles and reversed field for a 70-yard return touchdown.
“I feel like as a team, that kind of broke us,” Cruz said. “We all were just frustrated that they scored immediately.”
South didn’t give up, though. Cruz added a 60-yard catch to set up a Tre Green touchdown with 4:22 left in the third quarter, but couldn’t capitalize on an ensuing onside kick to get back into the game. Cameron Schurr threw an 80 yard touchdown pass to Cruz with 35 seconds left in the third, but the Hawks scored enough late to keep a comeback from happening.
Cruz finished his night with six catches for 170 yards, while Devin McGlockton had six grabs for 60 yards. Slott went 19 of 36 for 335 yards.
While Friday’s loss stings, the War Eagles still feel like they’re in good position for a run in region play, and if the first half against the Hawks was any indication, they may not be that far from where they want to be.
“I feel like we're going to do great,” Cruz said. “We've still got a lot of work to do. Once we hit the playoffs, we're going to play teams just like that or better. So we've got to focus on what we can do as a team to win the games.