FORT VALLEY — The offense wasn’t clicking, by any stretch.
At halftime, Peach County had run only 20 plays and gained only 130 yards, not a normal half.
But the circumstances weren’t normal, either.
The Trojans managed to survive, however, with offensive coordinator Todd Cooper laying in a hospital bed for the third straight day as they batted down a desperation pass on the final play of the game to edge Eastside 21-14 on Friday night in a GHSA Class AAA semifinal at Anderson Stadium.
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Peach County survived a few fumbles, making up for it with a blocked punt and blocked field goal.
“Special teams are special,” Peach County head coach Chad Campbell said. “I put the punt block in. I saw where maybe we could get it. They gave us one opportunity to get it.”
Cooper was hospitalized Tuesday with diverticulitis, a digestive condition, and has been out since.
“It’s eating him alive,” Campbell said of Cooper missing the game. “He ain’t never missed nothing. It’s been killing him.”
While the Trojans couldn’t get into a rhythm on offense, the defense turned in another stellar — and clutch — performance, and never more than midway through the fourth quarter.
Peach County’s seven-point lead was a precarious one, the Trojans getting the advantage on a 12-yard Travis Richmond run with 9:19 left in the fourth. The second play of the drive was Peach County’s second-best passing play, a 35-yarder from Patrick Taylor to Lamar Zanders, who made a nifty spin move and used his downfield blocking to cross midfield.
“That showed me that we could move the ball,” Taylor said. “We weren’t doing too good at the beginning.”
But Eastside gained 40 yards on its first three plays after the score and picked up 14 yards on fourth and 1 to reach Peach County’s 9.
That was the bending.
Aiken and Greg Griffith each got 3 yards, but Octavius Hall and Danney Griggs stuffed Aiken on third down.
Eastside ran only a few plays all night out of its spread: a quick pass to either side, a dive and an end around.
This time, Griffith got the call slanting to the left, but Tervarus Ages and Hat Williams stopped him at the line of scrimmage, giving the Trojans the ball on the 5 with 4:14 left.
“I didn’t know what they’d run,” Ages said. “I knew one thing. As long as we went hard and hit everybody hard, something good was going to happen.”
Said Campbell, “These kids have been resilient like that all year. They bowed their neck when they had to.”
Taylor lost 12 on second and 12, and the Trojans punted from the 3.
“I guess they watched film from last week when I kept the ball,” said Taylor, who had three earlier sacks for losses of 45 yards. “They had the ends sit out there and wait on me to run out there. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Eastside made it quite interesting, quarterback Califf Carnes scrambling for 5 on fourth and five, setting up the final play from 29 with 2.4 seconds left. The pass wasn’t batted down exceptionally cleanly in the end zone, but it was batted down.
“I batted it,” Zanders said. “Everybody got a hand on it.”
Wide receivers coach Nathan Clark took over the playcalling, with plenty of help from the staff. But having the routine interrupted, and by such a serious matter, entering a state semifinal makes for a stressful game.
Peach County coughed up the ball on its third play and promptly surrendered a 34-yard run, but the Trojans avoided disaster when LeBrandon Johnson picked off a pass at the goal line and got it out to the 13.
Four plays later, Taylor threw left — under serious pressure — on a wideout screen to Zanders. He had an escort and raced 65 yards for the score.
Eastside didn’t flinch.
The Eagles converted a fourth-and-1, then completed the 13-play, 63-yard drive with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Carnes to Aiken, tying it with 10.7 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Trojans gave it back on a fumble three snaps later, but the defense held and forced a field-goal attempt, which was blocked by Travis Richmond. Peach County turned in an ugly possession in which it lost 23 yards on three plays. Eastside nearly fumbled the punt, but moved to inside Peach County’s 40.
Johnson and Darion Howard came up with key second- and third-down stops to force a punt. But Kelcey Lewis stormed through to block it. Johnson scooped it up and sped 48 yards for the touchdown.
Rustin Evatt’s kick put the Trojans up 14-7 with two minutes left in the half.
Through 24 minutes, Eastside ran 12 more plays but had 6 fewer total yards.
But the Trojans came through with the big 80-yard, 10-play drive to take the lead early in the fourth quarter.
“This isn’t like the regular season,” Campbell said. “You’re playing great teams. Eastside’s got a good football team. We bent a whole lot, and that thing about broke, but it didn’t.”
Peach County improved to 14-0 and will face Gainesville at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday in the championship game at the Georgia Dome. Eastside’s season ends at 11-3.
“We goin’ to the ‘A’,” wideout Isaiah Miller said while hugging a friend. “We goin’ to the ‘A.’ ”