Athens coach Cody Gross doesn't make excuses for his team's performance, but he did acknowledge the Golden Eagles were in a difficult position in Saturday night's season opener against James Clemens.
Not only was Athens playing the preseason No. 7-ranked team in Class 7A, they were doing so after having missed two weeks of practice due to two players testing positive for COVID-19.
The lack of practice time combined with a difficult opponent helped doom the Eagles to a 22-0 loss.
“There are no excuses,” Gross said. “We know the situation we've been in, but there's a reason you practice, you know what I mean? Inexperience showed in a lot of areas, and that's a good football team we played. When you play guys that are physical like them and are as fast as they are, it kind of magnifies some things.”
Athens had to suspend practice Aug. 10-20 after the positive tests and canceled its Aug. 21 game against Fort Payne. Despite all that, Athens hung right with James Clemens in the first half, but mistakes killed any chances the Golden Eagles had of winning.
It started from the beginning, as Athens attempted to punt after failing to gain a first down on its opening possession. The snap went over punter Heath Carden's head and out the back of the end zone for a safety.
James Clemens was stopped on downs on its next possession, and Athens answered with its best drive of the night. The Golden Eagles were helped by offsides and pass interference penalties against James Clemens, and a 15-yard run by Jordan Scott gave Athens a first-and-goal at the Jets' 3-yard line. However, two plays later, the Golden Eagles fumbled, which was recovered by James Clemens in the end zone, ending the scoring threat.
James Clemens put the first touchdown on the board early in the second quarter when Gio Lopez found Manny Sanders on a slant pattern in the middle of the field, and Sanders did the rest by outrunning the Athens defense to the end zone.
Athens went three-and-out on its next possession, and a short punt gave James Clemens the ball at the 34-yard line. It took the Jets just four plays to score, with Lopez hooking up with Tyrik Walker for a 21-yard scoring pass.
Athens looked to have answered right before halftime and picked up some needed momentum, but yet another mistake cost them.
Athens faced fourth-and-6 from James Clemens' 26-yard line. The Golden Eagles tried a trick play where Scott was to throw a backwards pass to Jaden Jude, who would fake as if he were running up the field before throwing to a wide-open Carden for a touchdown. The play worked perfectly, and it looked as if Athens was right back in the game before halftime.
However, Scott's pass to Jude was deemed to be a forward pass, which made Jude's pass to Carden illegal. The penalty was a loss of down, which gave the ball back to James Clemens, as it was a fourth-down play.
Athens never came close to scoring again, as the Jets tightened up the defense in the second half. The Golden Eagles were held to just 87 total yards and completed just two of 12 passes for 21 yards. Athens quarterbacks were sacked six times, although Gross said it was not all the offensive line's fault.
“People usually assume it's the offensive line, but sometimes it was the (running) back, sometimes it was the quarterback holding the ball too long, and one time we had a bad snap,” he said. “We've got a lot to clean up, and we haven't had a whole lot of live action. We'll improve.”
James Clemens iced the game early in the fourth quarter when Lopez scored on a 1-yard dive. Lopez finished the game with 71 passing yards, 119 rushing yards and three total touchdowns.
Athens was led offensively by Jaylen Gilbert, who had 49 rushing yards on eight attempts.
Athens (0-1) starts Class 6A, Region 8 play Friday night by hosting Columbia. Gross said he expects to see a much-improved team.
“We'll go back to the drawing board and keep plugging,” he said. “We've got a lot we can get better at, and we will. We've got great kids, and there's not a doubt in my mind we're going to come to work next week and get better.”