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SPORTS RECAP: O'Neal touchdown grab sparks 29-point East Laurens rally in fourth quarter to key comeback win over Oglethorpe County

The Courier Herald – September 14, 2021

    They passed on a few earlier chances, but when the East Laurens Falcons got around to making their move, they went in for the kill, and didn’t miss. 
   Saving a dramatic finish for the fourth quarter, they rattled off 29 points – and two pick-six touchdowns – in the final seven minutes of football to climb back from a three-point deficit in a 36-10 victory over Oglethorpe County at Falcon Field. East Laurens (3-1 overall) scored all 36 in its total unanswered, after trailing 10-0 at the end of the first quarter, to grab a second win in a row. 
   The Falcons forced three turnovers in the final stretch, and cashed each in for points, after initially going up 15-10 with a safety and a clutch touchdown completion from Kashmere Bryant to Khanoski O’Neal early in a fourth quarter that it began behind in the count 10-7. 
   An emboldened East Laurens defense dominated the remainder of the game, using more of the consistent pass pressure it had gotten all night to force back-to-back-to-back interceptions. The first two, on respective second and first downs, were returned for touchdowns by Damerian Patterson and Treveon Richardson. O’Neal snagged the third on the back end of a third set of downs to set up the 38-yard touchdown run of Downing for an add-on score. 
   The Falcons, who chalked up seven sacks and 11 "hurries" over the course of the night, got a hit prior to each of the picks on Oglethorpe County quarterback Will Sampson, whose composure crumbled along with his protection almost as soon as the Patriots’ late lead evaporated. 
   East Laurens, with the late takeaways, won the turnover battle 3-2. 
   “Our defense played lights out all night long,” said East Laurens head coach Bin Turner. “That poor quarterback took a beating. He kept getting smoked, and then he started trying to get rid of the ball, chucking and ducking. And we were sitting there primed and ready to sit there and grab it and take it the other way.” 
   Friday’s game was, for moments, a re-enactment of Georgia vs. Clemson: very nearly a stalemate in which both defenses came up with play after play. East Laurens mostly kept Oglethorpe County confined to its own territory with the devastating pass rush.
   Quintavious Adolphus and T.J. Rozier had two and a half sacks apiece, while Ladarius Taylor added two of his own. Omarion Guyton took the mantle of tackles leader, with a total of 11, along with a half a sack, one tackle for loss and credit for the tackle on the Patriots' fourth quarter safety. 
   And the Falcons' offense, after a slow start in the first quarter, moved the football efficiently, by night's end rolling up a more than respectable 267 rushing yards to go along with 62 through the air. Downing was their leading gainer, with 162 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. Bryant rushed for 80 on 21. 
   The issues came primarily with cashing in on trips near the red zone, where East Laurens was frequently done in by turnovers and dropped passes. 
   And as the struggle to get up and running continued, it seemed a special teams bust that led to an Oglethorpe County touchdown in the first quarter, to go with an inopportune turnover on the following drive, might wind up being the difference. The two big mistakes spotted Oglethorpe County a 10-0 lead that held till the second. 
   The Patriots cracked the board after both teams went three-and-out on their opening possessions. East Laurens lost outside containment on a kick near midfield, on which Nate Brown outran the overplayed coverage personnel to the right sideline and into end zone on the 55-yard return. 
   Henry Johnson picked off a Bryant pass on the Falcons’ next drive and returned it to set up a first-and-goal from the eight, although East Laurens held firm and forced a field goal try that split the pipes from 21 yards. 
   The Falcons didn’t stay idle on offense. They started to pick up some steam in the ground game early in the second, marched to answer, with alternating runs off the read option between Bryant and Eli Downing. Bryant’s keeper moved the chains on a pressure fourth-and-five to keep the drive rolling, and with some tempo, they eventually worked their way down to the five for another Bryant carry that scored to put the first Eastside points on the board. 
   Ben Brantley smashed the point-after kick through to cut the deficit to 10-7. 
   The Falcons got another stop, and appeared poised to grab the lead before halftime on another confident bit-by-bit drive. Downing broke a big run to clear midfield before the Falcons found themselves in another fourth-and-medium. They ran the offense back out one more time for the conversion on a Bryant run up the gut, then resumed tempo as the possession became a furious race against the clock. 
   East Laurens reached the 10 with around 38 seconds to play before an Oglethorpe timeout on a second-and-10. Amid the ensuing play, the ball slipped free from the hands of Bryant as he searched for some running room in a congested left flat. The Pats made the recovery, and took things to halftime with a 10-7 lead. 
   Frustration continued into the second half for the Falcons, as the missed first-half chance began to loom larger and larger. East went three-and-out on its first series, and held off a score with a fourth-down stop on the best offensive drive of the night by Oglethorpe County to its 35. 
   Coming back the other way, Downing picked up another first on a fourth-down carry before a second do-or-die nearing the red zone resulted in a dropped pass, and turnover on downs. 
   The teams traded punts, the second by Brantley pinning the Patriots inside their own 10 at the start of the fourth quarter. A tackle for loss on the first carry by Quintavious Adolphus put Oglethorpe County’s back against its own goal line, were a slip-down by the Patriot ball carrier in the backfield on the second down carry resulted in a safety. 
   The two-spot, in a three-point ballgame, wasn’t going to be enough. Although the Falcons were set to get the ball back in plus field position on the free kick. And this chance was likely to be their best to finally jump in front, perhaps a now-or-never proposition. 
   East Laurens survived an early fumble, but after a first down, was backed into a third-and-13 that felt pivotal. Drops on some potential key completions early in the night had a lot riding on this passing situation for Bryant. And he dialed up his biggest connection of the season to date. 
   Buying time off play action to his right, the senior lifted the ball to the goal line, where O’Neal had initially broken several steps open, but gotten swallowed up in traffic. He had to go up a ways to bring the ball in, inches from the helmet of his defender, but made the grab to send the home crowd into a frenzy with just above six minutes to go in the game. 
   “It was just a great athlete going up to a late-thrown ball, that’s what it comes down to,” Turner said. “Noski’s a dawg. He wanted it. I think he was still hurting from having a big drop earlier in the game, and ‘Noski takes things personal. He went up over everybody and pulled it down. He was in at least double coverage. It might have been triple coverage. I didn’t think there was any way we were gonna come down with it, but I’ve learned not to count that boy out.” 
   East’s attempt to go for two failed, but the touchdown gave them a 15-10 lead and the confidence boost they had been waiting for. With a chance to play from ahead for the first time, the Falcon defense cranked up the heat. And Oglethorpe County, which had been battered by the pressure and penetration to that point, all but melted in the remaining time. 
   O’Neal thumped the Oglethorpe County return man on the kickoff that followed. The very next play, Patterson picked off Sampson’s back-footed heave to the right side under heavy duress, and took it back untouched for the score. The Falcons built on the 22-10 lead when Richardson snatched another wayward pass and ran it back on the next series. 
   “It came down to that dadgum D-line and those ‘backers,” Turner said. “They were unbelievable. QT, I’m excited to do his stats. I’ve got a feeling he had about seven sacks. He’s turned into an unbelievable football player. And they tried to do a bunch of stuff with him, and they couldn’t find anybody that could handle him. I know that QB, he was a warrior, is gonna be very sore tomorrow. Because he took a lot of hits. We had him on the run all night long.” 
   The Falcons’ varsity defense, through four games, has given up just one touchdown, and that on Johnson County’s game-deciding score that came on a short field after an inopportune interception. 
   While the studs are all over the field, the dominance of the Falcons so far has started right up front. 
   “A great D-line? That’s a secondary’s best friend,” Turner said. 
   East Laurens heads into a bye week before its non-region finale Sept. 24 at home against Baconton Charter, also homecoming. Swainsboro visits the nest for either team’s 2-AA opener the first Friday of October. 
   “We’ve just gotta win the next one, then have that mindset that, look, we’re just as good if not better than anybody we play. So we've gotta come out and give our best shot,” Turner said. “We’ve gotta clean some stuff up on the offensive side of the ball, because we kept shooting ourself in the foot and shooting ourself in the foot. But we’ll get that fixed, and be able to score some points and hopefully continue to play defense like we’re playing right now.”

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