Hawks feast on Rabbs to move to 7-0

Pleasant Grove QB Ben Harmon rolls to his left before throwing a completion against Atlanta in the second half Friday, Oct. 21, at Hawk Stadium

By Bill Owney

It’s an old saying, trite but true: Defense wins championships.

Pleasant Grove (7-0, 2-0) Friday night took a critical step toward the school’s first district title in a decade by riding a dominant defensive performance to stifle Atlanta (3-4, 0-2) and ignite a second quarter rally that put the Rabbs away early.

2018 Homecoming Queen Madeline Haak shares a moment with good friend Britton Anderson.

The final was 48-17, and could have been worse. Hawk fans could relax and enjoy homecoming halftime – and the first win over the Rabbits in six years – thanks to a series of key stops that set up four touchdown passes by sophomore QB Ben Harmon before intermission.

“We executed very well on both sides of the ball tonight,” said PG head coach Josh Gibson, whose team this week climbed to as high as No. 2 in statewide polls and before the game received the U.S. Army Values School of the Week award. “I like where we are headed. We’re 7-0 and have played a lot of good football teams.

“On defense, we had a lot of series where we just shut them down.”

The favor was returned in the early going. PG’s run-first, Wing-T offense started slowly, thanks mainly to the scheme of Atlanta coach Matt McClure, who crowded the line with 11 players to contain the run.

“They basically said, ‘You’re not going to run the ball,’” Gibson said. “So we said, ‘Well, we’re going to try to run it.’ Then we decided, ‘OK, we’ll throw it.’”

Slow start

Neither team did much in the first quarter. McClure’s strategy worked well enough to get the Rabbs an early lead after Atlanta quarterback Andrew Samples boomed a 50-yard punt that backed the Hawks up at their own 14 at the 10:16 mark of the first quarter.

Atlanta’s stifling run defense and the opening volley of a flurry of yellow flags – PG was penalized 10 times for 97 yards on the night, Atlanta twice for 8 – forced a punt from out of the end zone. The snap was bad, but Harmon managed to cover it for a safety, putting the Rabbs up 2-0.

Addison Smith, left, and Peyton Adams warm the chilly night with a flute duet at halftime.

Any hope of building that lead was quickly snuffed out by PG’s Black Flag defense. After the ensuing kick, Atlanta started at its own 38. On first down, freshman outside linebacker Landon Jackson – remember that name – burst through to smother star Atlanta tailback Jawan King for a three-yard loss. Senior inside linebacker Caleb Portia repeated the trick on third down.

PG defensive coordinator Brandon Easterly said his team could shut down the speedy Rabbits because of lock-down, single coverage in the passing game.

“Our secondary coaches, Andy Allen and Dwight McCowan, did a great job preparing the kids,” Easterly said. “When we can get single coverage, we can do anything we want with blitzes and stunts. We tackled well, we flew to the ball, we covered well. It was a good night.”

Indeed. Atlanta picked up just eight first downs on the night and the Rabbits’ total offense of 226 yards was more than doubled by PG’s 466.

After an exchange of punts, PG went to the air. Harmon started a 61-yard drive by connecting with Carson Cox for 17 and 12 yards. He finished it by rolling to his right and finding TJ Cole in the right flat. With a college scout watching closely, the big back ran through one DB and outran another to make it 7-2 with 2:07 remaining in the first quarter.

The scout was impressed.

The Rabbs responded with their best drive of the night, smartly marching 67 yards on eight plays, the last four were rushes by Samples, who scooted up the middle for six yards and the score. The junior signal caller topped that with a two-point run to make it 10-7.

The gates open

Then the wheels came off for Atlanta.

PG cheerleaders find plenty to cheer about as the Hawks move into a first-place tie with Pittsburg atop 4A-2, Region II.

“We played hard for a long time,” said McClure. “They got those stops and big plays and we were down. I wanted it to be close going into the second half, something like 13-10, but it didn’t happen. That was the turning point. Then we started wearing down.”

The game turned with a little more than 10 minutes left in the half. After its score, Atlanta forced another PG punt and, after another flag, set up shop at its own 38. On first down, however, the Rabbs attempted a screen pass, but senior defensive tackle Austin Toler batted the pass. Jackson – remember him? – snatched the ball out of the air and, like a Great Dane puppy first learning to play fetch, rumbled and stumbled before sprawling to the turf at the Atlanta 18.

Sensing the run, the Atlanta defenders crowded the line. This time, Harmon ran a waggle to the right and floated the ball into the hands of Xavier Benson, who plowed through a safety at the goal line to make it 13-10 with 9:56 remaining in the half.

The scout was impressed.

The snap on the point-after was bad, but the giant had awakened from its slumber. PG would never trail again.

A few minutes later, the Rabbs had a second-and-three at their own 47. Two dives into the line, and some generous ball spotting, netted two yards. On fourth-and-one, Samples called his own number and was buried at the line of scrimmage by Toler and Drake Fowler.

Bruce (emphasis on the roooooh) Garrett ping-ponged through the middle for 8 yards and turned the corner on the right flank for 15 more. He would end the night with 71 yards on eight carries. Josh Roberts picked up 10 to the Rabbit 18 with 2:22 remaining in the second quarter.

After another flag, Harmon found Cox slashing past the secondary on a deep post and zipped a perfect spiral to the senior wideout for his third TD pass.

The Hawks weren’t through.

Again, the defense slammed the door on the Rabbs, forcing a punt from the PG 19. Atlanta tried a funky, delayed, rugby-style kick that netted one yard.

Two plays later, Harmon hit Cole in the right flat and the senior sprinted into the endzone. Miller Hornsby’s snap was perfect, Brett Walker’s hold was on the money, and Dillon Williams’ point-after kick was perfect. PG 27-10, 46.6 seconds on the clock.

History-making team?

Atlanta’s McClure, who has played on and coached teams that made deep playoff runs, including a state championship team, came away impressed.

PG’s TJ Cole blasts through a hole for a 48-yard run in the second half.

“They’ve got a chance. PG can play defense and runs the ball well. That’s what it takes. They’re big, very big, and they have all those senior leaders,” he said. “The only problem they’ll have is if they run into someone as big as them.”

Any doubt remaining about the outcome was laid to rest with PG’s opening drive of the second half. After another flag, it started at the Atlanta 6. Garrett got it started with a 24-yard jet sweep around the left side. A Harmon-to-Cole connection in the right flat soon had the Hawks near midfield.

Nine plays later, Cole exploded through a big hole on the right side, ran through a tackle and rammed into two defenders at the goal line, carrying them into the end zone to make it 34-10.

The scout, who said he was checking out six Hawks, was once again impressed.

Cole finished with 98 yards and a TD on 12 carries and caught three passes for 56 yards and two more scores.

Late in the third quarter, an interception off a tipped pass put Atlanta at the PG 14. Samples hit Kade Wood on the left sideline for 13. Dra Nelson finished it from there with a run up the middle to make it 34-17.

PG immediately answered with a five-play, 75-yard drive that was keyed by a 48-yard run by Cole after taking an option lateral from Harmon. Two plays later, Harmon followed a wall of blockers around the right side for a 10-yard TD run.

The sophomore quarterback wound up rushing for 43 yards and a TD, and hitting on seven of twelve passes for 118 yards and the four scores.

Half of the fourth quarter was occupied by a nine-play, 84-yard scoring drive by the Hawks, many of them reserves. Cole and Garrett contributed big carries, as did junior fullback James Wiggins. Harmon’s older brother, Luke, capped the drive with a one-yard plunge.

The game ended with PG taking a knee in the victory formation at the Rabbit 3.

More good teams await the Hawks, who next week travel to Pittsburg (5-2, 2-0), the only other district unbeaten. The Pirates nipped Spring Hill, 57-56. Gilmer and Gladewater are both 1-1 after the Buckeyes dropped the Bears, 49-39.

In other district action next week, Atlanta hosts Gladewater and Spring Hill travels to Gilmer.


Atl       2          8          7          0          – 17

PG       7          20        14        7          – 48


Atlanta Pleasant Grove
8 First Downs 28
38-182 Rush-yards 49-348
7-13-1 – 44 PC-PA-I-yds 7-12-1 — 118
226 Total 466
1-1 Fumbles-lost 1-0
2-8 Penalties 10-97
6-32.1 Punts 2-37.0


TJ Cole, Xavier Benson, Tyler Kelly and Chauncey Martin celebrate with fans after the No. 2-ranked Hawks knock off Atlanta to remain unbeaten.



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A veteran journalist and educator, Bill Owney is a 1980 graduate of the University of Florida. Writing awards include APME honors for investigative reporting, the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Award for public service reporting and numerous awards for editorial, column and news writing. He served as publisher of the Atlanta Citizens Journal and Pittsburg Gazette when each paper won sweepstakes awards from the Texas Press and North and East Texas Press Associations. He spent 15 years as a public school teacher and is an adjunct professor of English at Texarkana College.


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