MILTON, Ga. — Following a tumultuous offseason and two-week delay to its opener, high school football returned to Fulton County on Sept. 17 with a cross-town battle between Milton and Johns Creek.
The Eagles got the better of the Gladiators after a slow start, scoring 29 unanswered points in the second half to win their third straight Freedom Bowl.
“That was a great first game,” Milton head coach Adam Clack said. “There were mistakes and learning moments, but there were also a ton of contributors.”
The defenses shined bright early in the game, as both teams’ offenses struggled to find their footing in their first game of the season.
Johns Creek fumbled on the third play of the game. Their next possession ended with an interception. On the Gladiators’ next four drives of the half, they were forced to punt each time.
Milton didn’t fare much better on offense in the first half. The Eagles missed a 38-yard field goal on their first possession followed by a turnover on downs and three consecutive punts.
The two teams regrouped at halftime with the score tied 0-0. Clack said he told the Eagles not to panic and stay positive.
“We had a lot of things going in the first half,” Clack said. “It wasn’t like we weren’t moving the football. It was a lot of self-inflicted things. It’s almost as if we were like, ‘Are we really out here?’ at times. I think it just took a minute to get our sea legs, if you will. We reset and had nothing but positivity and confidence coming out in the second half.”
Less than two minutes into the third quarter, junior running back Jordan McDonald broke through the middle for a 53-yard touchdown, as Clack, the Eagles and their fans took a collective exhale.
On Johns Creek’s ensuing drive, the Eagles came down with their second interception of the game and took over on their own 40-yard line.
Milton found paydirt again, this time through the air.
Junior quarterback Devin Farrell found freshman receiver Debron Gatling over the middle for a 32-yard touchdown pass, as the Eagles took a two-score lead over the Gladiators. Instead of kicking the extra point, the Eagles opted to go for the two-point conversion. The Eagles succeeded, as highly touted defensive recruit L.T. Overton appeared on offense and carried the ball in for the conversion.
Milton scored on its third consecutive drive following another punt by Johns Creek. This time, Farrell tossed a 21-yard touchdown to senior receiver Matthew Evert, and the Eagles took a 22-0 lead with 2:24 remaining in the third quarter.
The Eagles’ fourth score came in the final minute of the game while many starters were resting on the bench. Backup quarterback and starting receiver Adam Freas capped off the scoring with a 2-yard touchdown run, punctuated with an extra point from kicker Jason Aussin to put Milton up 29-0.
Though the Eagles’ offense didn’t put up any points in the first half, it turned out to be a solid game offensively for Milton by night’s end.
Farrell finished 14-for-22 with 220 passing yards and two touchdowns. McDonald posted 154 rushing yards and one touchdown on 18 carries. Five other Eagles carried the ball at least once. Freas led receivers with five receptions for 87 yards, but five other Eagles had at least one reception.
As for the Milton defense, the Gladiators finished with zero points and just over 100 yards of total offense. The Eagles came up with one fumble recovery and three interceptions and forced six punts.
“Just phenomenal,” Clack said. “It almost got to the point where they were in such control that you start to take it for granted. I can’t wait to go back and watch the film and really appreciate all the nuances of what they’re doing. Coach [Drew] Connell, coach [Jason] Stromie and the whole defensive staff, they do such a phenomenal job getting those guys in the right spot.”
There were some bright spots on offense for Johns Creek.
Senior quarterback Quinn Teeples, who finished 11-for-24 for 81 yards, had success throwing the ball, but the three interceptions proved costly. Teeples appears to have a good connection with senior tight end Ethan Storey, who reeled in four receptions for 19 yards. Senior running back Dylan Parr, who missed the 2019 season, carried 11 times for 32 yards against a stout Milton front seven.
It should be noted the Gladiators were without head coach Matt Helmerich, who was not seen leading his team onto the field or calling plays from the sideline. Instead, assistant coach and former Atlanta Falcons star Roddy White led the Gladiators onto the field and appeared to be calling plays for the offense.
Both teams take the field again Sept. 25, as Milton hosts Hapeville Charter and Johns Creek hosts Westlake.