By Gabriel Stovall
McDONOUGH, Ga. —The last time the Jonesboro Cardinals got off to a 2-0 start in a football season, they were considered dark horse Class 4A state championship contenders.
That was back in 2015, the year the Cardinals first flexed their muscles by going on the road to beat Sandy Creek. They also took down Griffin, then Thomas County Central and Carrollton before falling in the Class 4A quarterfinals to a Cartersville team that boasted a young, then-sophomore phenom at quarterback named Trevor Lawrence.
That Cardinals bunch had its own stud quarterback in Zerrick Cooper, who was committed to Clemson along with Lawrence. But then there was now-Kentucky graduate Jordan Griffin. There was the often unstoppable Kali James up front. Montralious Mosley in the offensive backfield. The list of big time playmakers could go on.
Ironically, that Jonesboro squad went 11-2 and one of its losses came at the hands of Eagle’s Landing in the rivalry game between the two schools dubbed the FCA Gridiron Classic. It was also the last time the Cardinals and Golden Eagles would meet until this past Friday.
Now, Jonesboro coach Tim Floyd will be the first to tell you that this year’s team is quite a ways off from being that 11-2 playoff bunch. But in a revival of the Jonesboro-Eagle’s Landing rivalry, there would be no losing for the Cardinals this time around.
Jonesboro used a stellar performance from senior Ahlik Booker who’s two touchdown receptions and pair of interceptions helped the Cardinals to a 19-0 win over Eagle’s Landing that pushed the Cardinals to its first 2-0 start in five years.
And while no one is putting these Cardinals in the same conversation as that 2015 squad, Floyd is definitely not downplaying the positive vibes being 2-0 is bringing his team.
“It definitely feels good to be 2-0,” Floyd said. “I’m really pleased with the way the defense has been playing these first couple of games. And I think (Friday night), we showed flashes of what we could be on offense. Still some work to do there, but to be 2-0 at this point is a pretty good feeling.”
Jonesboro’s defense stood tall against an Eagle’s Landing offense that’s young, but showed promise last week in a 31-21 loss at Meadowcreek. But this week, the Golden Eagles were unable to get untracked.
“We just couldn’t seem to adjust,” said Eagle’s Landing coach Shawn Jones. “We had a plan going in. We knew exactly what they were going to do. Their defensive line doesn’t penetrate. They just stand you up and everybody runs to the ball. We had an adjustment for it, but we just didn’t execute. Hats off to coach Floyd and Jonesboro. They did exactly what they needed to do.”
One thing Jonesboro knew it wanted to do coming into Friday night was get the football into Booker’s hands.
The 5-foot-10 senior made his presence known from the start, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. On a 3rd-and-7 during Eagle’s Landing’s first offensive possession, Golden Eagles quarterback Donovan Brazley rifled a pass to a receiver on a hitch route, and Booker delivered a punishing blow that separated the receiver from the ball, forcing an Eagle’s Landing punt.
On offense, Booker snagged a 28-yard rollout pass from junior quarterback Chad Garner on another 3rd-and-7 play. The catch helped move the chains for the Cardinals on a drive that would ultimately result in Anthony Lobo booting a 24-yard field goal to give Jonesboro a 3-0 lead with 5:30 left in the first quarter.
Two Eagle’s Landing drives later, Booker stepped in front of a Brazley pass for the first of his two interceptions of the night. And although Jonesboro failed to score, it set a defensive precedent as the Cardinals forced five ELHS turnovers.
After Lobo booted a 32-yard field goal to make it 6-0, Jonesboro with just over five minutes before halftime, Jonesboro’s defense forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. Three plays later, Garner hooked up with Booker on a 58-yard scoring strike. The touchdown gave the Cardinals a 13-0 lead at halftime.
On the first drive of the third quarter, Booker picked up right where he left off in the second half, as Jonesboro punctuated a 6-play, 63-yard scoring march with Booker snagging a 53-yard touchdown pass from Garner to provide the game’s final margin.
Booker then ended Eagle’s Landing’s next-to-last drive with his second interception. He unofficially finished Friday night with six catches for 176 receiving yards and the two scores to go along with a pair of picks.
And while some may just be getting turned on to Booker’s ability, his performance Friday night was no shock to Floyd.
“Ahlik is a four-year guy for us, maybe a three or four-year starter for us, so that means he’s been playing a lot for us since his freshman year,” Floyd said. “So he’s definitely one of the top guys we’re looking for to come in and make plays for us this year.”
Jonesboro’s 2-0 start was set to be tested Friday with an away game at Carrollton. But Carrollton cancelling its Friday game against Newnan due to several of Carrollton’s players being exposed to COVID-19 has Jonesboro’s Friday night plans with the Trojans up in the air.
“We were just getting on the bus to head to (Eagle’s Landing) when we found out Carrollton had cancelled its game,” Floyd said.
As of Sunday night, it remains to be seen if the Trojans and Cardinals will meet this coming Friday. But on Friday night, Floyd said that if the game with Carrollton is cancelled, he will not look for a replacement.
“In my mind, if we can’t play next week, we’ll just take that time to rest and recover a bit,” Floyd said. “I know it’s early in the season, but a lot of our guys are already beat up a bit. So I think it’ll be best to take that time off, get in the weight room which helps with a lot of stuff, and then also just have time for coaches and the players to get some family time in.”
Jonesboro already has a bye week scheduled for the week of September 25, which means if Carrollton doesn’t happen, the Cardinals won’t see the field again until an October 2 home game against Dalton.
Meanwhile, Eagle’s Landing (0-2) is set to travel to Lovejoy (2-0) Friday night. The Wildcats are riding high off momentum from an impressive come-from-behind 27-26 win against Carver Saturday at the Great Atlanta Bash at Georgia State’s football stadium.
After being shut out against the Cardinals one week after a solid offensive showing at Meadowcreek, Jones said it’s time to rethink some things.
“It’s back to the drawing board for us,” he said. “We’ve gotta figure out some ways to score some points.”
Late in the second half, sophomore Shaihi Brown came in to spell Brazley at quarterback. Brown is noticeably taller than the lefty Brazley, and seems to have a stronger arm. But he was guilty of two of Eagle’s Landing’s four interceptions Friday night. The change-up was just Jones’ way of exploring which roster combinations could possibly give his squad a spark.
“We’re going to see,” he said. “It’s a competition. Not just at quarterback, but everywhere. Every position is open at this point, because when you’re 0-2, we gotta figure out who can play. I thought we’d figured it out, but then we had injuries at linebacker and all over the place. So I know it sounds cliche, but we’ve gotta see who the next man up is.”