By Gabriel Stovall
DECATUR, Ga. —After Lovejoy’s trip to Adams Stadium to take on the Tucker Tigers on Monday night, someone may want to make sure that the Tucker and Lovejoy MaxPreps pages get corrected.
Before the rare Monday night high school football matchup had a chance to kick off, someone, somewhere posted a 28-10 result favoring Tucker that showed up on both schools’ MaxPreps.com pages. It depicted Lovejoy with a 6-1 record with Tucker at 3-1. It could’ve been a mistake, or perhaps someone from Tucker tried to go into prediction mode.
Either way, it was wrong.
Class 6A No. 3 Lovejoy used two long-bomb touchdown passes from junior quarterback Stephin Craig—one to Antonio Jones and the other to Quentavius Scandrett—and a stout, late-game rushing attack while riding the coattails of another stalwart defensive performance to help notch a 13-7 win over Tucker.
Not only was the win essential for Lovejoy (7-0, 2-0) to create separation between itself, Tucker (2-2, 1-1), Westlake (5-1, 2-0) and Langston Hughes (6-1, 1-1) in the Region 4-AAAAAA standings, it was also the program’s first-ever win against Tucker in eight tries. And it was somewhat of a personal milestone for Lovejoy head coach Edgar Carson as well.
“Someone text messaged a picture of that (incorrect score) to a couple of our coaches, and it was definitely a point of emphasis, and they did bring it up to our players,” Carson said. “Our guys took it personal. It gave them a little ammunition as well. Our kids weren’t afraid of Tucker, and they knew how big it would be to beat them for the first time in school history. It was the first time for me beating them as a coach as well.”
When Carson was an assistant at Griffin, the Bears fell 34-0 to Tucker in the 2008 4A semifinals. But Monday was much different for everyone involved.
Lovejoy opened the game’s scoring when Jones beat a Tucker corner on a sweet double move and Craig dropped a picture-perfect dime over his shoulder for a 55-yard strike that gave Lovejoy an early 7-0 lead.
Although both teams had opportunities to add to the scoreboard before halftime, the 7-0 Lovejoy advantage would stand. Tucker, in particular, shot itself in the foot on its next-to-last drive before the break. After driving deep into Wildcat territory, the Tigers’ drive stalled out and Camden Russell came on for a 42-yard field goal attempt which was well within his range.
The field goal was tipped slightly at the line of scrimmage and fell no good, but a running-into-the-kicker penalty gave Tucker a 5-yard advancement and a realistic shot at a fourth down conversion.
A Tucker ball carrier took the ensuing hand off on an end-around, and got to the corner for first down yardage. But a holding penalty negated the play, and Lovejoy’s defense stiffened to stop Tucker on its next play to regain possession before halftime.
The third quarter saw a few more offensive fireworks, starting with Tucker star tailback Latavius Johnson slicing through the Lovejoy defense for a 38-yard touchdown run to tie the game, 7-7 at the 8:54 mark.
Jones tried to immediately snatch back momentum for Lovejoy when he bolted for a 40-yard kick return. But a block-in-the-back penalty brought the play back. Instead, Lovejoy started the drive at its own 10-yard line. Lovejoy’s offense went to work, though, starting with a 20-yard pickup on the ground by Jakiel Middlebrooks, followed by an impressive 12-yard snag by Jones.
On the next play, Craig heaved a beautiful long ball to Scandrett who caught it in stride and sprinted down the Lovejoy sideline en route to a 53-yard touchdown for what would prove to be the game’s final score.
The combination of Craig’s pair of touchdown passes and his ability to avoid turnovers was a key factor for Lovejoy’s offense being able to do enough to get the win.
“Stephin took good care of the ball as he’s done all year,” Carson said. “We dialed up a couple of shots down field for him to take, and each time he laid the ball right where it needed to be. We saw the kind of coverages Tucker was running, and we like those matchups on the outside with Jones and Scandrett against their corners. So I told coach (Derrick) Smith, ‘let’s take shot right here with Scandrett.’ It was on our sideline, and his speed helped him get behind the guy.”
After a couple of defensive stops, including two times when the Wildcats turned Tucker away on fourth down, Lovejoy turned to an effective running game that pounded the ball right at an exhausted Tucker defense. When Trevon Kinchen busted a 23-yard run that got Lovejoy into the red zone with that 13-7 lead late in the fourth quarter, it looked almost certain that the Wildcats would tack on an insurance touchdown.
That’s when a nasty case of deja vu hit.
Kinchen took another carry and got stripped of the football inside the 10-yard line as he was fighting for extra yardage. Tucker recovered at its own 7-yard line with an opportunity to regain the lead. And it reminded Carson of how things went south a year ago when Lovejoy lost a late lead and Tucker went on to win 23-16 all because of a fumble.
“You know, we talked about that fumble in last year’s game last week,” he said. “Last year, the score was kinda tight as well. We fumbled and gave them the game then, and then we fumbled tonight down the stretch. But I knew my defense had been playing really well. So I told them, ‘Hey, let’s just go out here and go three-and-out and get the offense the ball back.’ And the thing about it is, nobody complained when we fumbled. Nobody got down. They just got back out there and put up a good stop on defense.
“We’ve got some good team chemistry going right now.”
Especially on defense. Only one team has scored more than a touchdown against Lovejoy’s defense this year, and that was Carver back when the Wildcats pulled out a 27-26 win at Georgia State Stadium. But if you’re looking for individual stars and standouts, you might be hard-pressed to find any. And Carson says that’s a good thing.
“I’ll tell you, you oughta see these defensive guys at practice,” he said. “They’re just a unit. They play together. No matter who we put in the game, no matter how many snaps you get, they take advantage of what they get. And they dap each other up every time they hit the field. It’s a group. It’s a total team defense, and not just one or two standout guys, and that’s what makes us special as a team.”
Now here comes the fun part: In normal, non-pandemic times, Lovejoy would get a good week in between games to rest. But due to all the COVID-19 related cancellations and postponements, the Wildcats must gear up to face another athletic region opponent in Hughes Saturday. That’s just five days away. Six days later it’s Westlake, and six days after that it’s North Atlanta—a stretch of games that will determine Lovejoy’s region championship hopes and whether or not it will host a first round playoff game.
But though the task of getting his squad healthy enough to finish the gauntlet well is unenviable, Carson seems un-phased. Call it the confidence he has in his team right now.
“Yeah, we’ve got some guys banged up, and we’re gonna do everything we can to take care of their bodies,” he said. “We gotta hit the weight room and continue to lift, get iced up and rehabbed. And we hope to get some of these injuries healed by Saturday. But if not, guess what? It’s next man up, and our guys have shown that they’ll be ready for the challenge.”