By East Alabama Sports Today
ALEXANDRIA – The old-timers sitting in the Piedmont bleachers remember how big a deal it was to play Alexandria in football. The new-timers on the field Friday night just added to the legacy in the series renewal.
The third-ranked 3A Bulldogs staged one of their all-time greatest rallies in beating the sixth-ranked 5A Valley Cubs 27-23 at Lou Scales Stadium.
They rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit with a near flawless second half, scored on all three of their possessions in the half, took the lead with 1:04 to play and recovered a fumble moment later to preserve the victory in Coach Steve Smith’s 200thgame in the program.
The team hadn’t played since 1993, but the series goes back to 1924.
Jadon Calhoun pulled down an 8-yard pass from Jack Hayes on a post corner pattern with 1:04 to play to give the Bulldogs (9-1) the lead. Then, after the Valley Cubs (9-1) returned the ensuing kickoff into Piedmont territory, defensive end Sean Smith sacked Alexandria quarterback Wesley Wright for a 3-yard loss and Elijah Johnson, just inserted at defensive end after Alexandria called time, recovered a fumble with 42 seconds left to secure the win.
“The best comeback was definitely last year in the state championship game, but this one’s up there,” Hayes said. “We didn’t come to play that much in the first half … but we came and really performed like we should the second half.”
“Everybody laid it on the line tonight to get a huge win in a huge rivalry here in Calhoun County,” Smith said. “This game means a lot to a lot of people in Piedmont … who remember this game for what it used to be.”
The Bulldogs trailed 20-6 at halftime, but they scored on all three of their possessions in the half and held Alexandria to only 70 yards and a fourth-quarter field goal on its three possessions. The Valley Cubs were trying to complete their first undefeated regular season since 2006.
It was the second week in a row the Bulldogs took down a top 10 opponent with a touchdown in the final 65 seconds. They beat then-No. 2 Wellborn last week on a touchdown with 15 seconds to play to secure the No. 1 seed in their region.
“When you play two games like that back-to-back weeks you wake up sore the next day, but at the same time you’re probably the happiest you can be,” Sean Smith said. “Dad preached all week big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games and we had a lot of people step up and make those big-time plays tonight.”
The start of the second half went exactly the way Steve Smith called it at halftime. The Bulldogs were getting the ball to open the third quarter and he told the players at halftime they wanted to score, go for two and then stop the Valley Cubs on their first possession of the half.
The Bulldogs did just that – and more. Hayes capped the opening drive of the half with a 1-yard touchdown run, then ran in the two-point conversion. Their defense denied the Valley Cubs on their first shot of the half with Cody Holloway knocking down a fourth-down pass to Ethan Barnes that had too much air under it.
Calhoun capped their next possession a 5-yard touchdown run on an end-around to give Piedmont its first lead, 21-20. The Bulldogs held Alexandria to a 22-yard Cleat Forrest field goal, which Smith considered a stop, and then drove for 86 yards in 14 plays for the winning score. The drive consumed more than six and a half minutes, was set back by a hold, but extended on a roughing the passer penalty on a second-and-17.
Jack Hayes passed for 77 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 93 yards for Piedmont. Johnson rushed for 102 yards – 67 in the second half – and caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Hayes.
“I love the way that we battled and came back as a team even though we were down like we were tonight,” Calhoun said. “It reminds me of how we were in the state (finals) game last year. We were down at halftime, went in the locker room, we got collected, Coach Smith talked to us and then we went back out there and executed what we needed to.”
The Bulldogs clamped down on Alexandria’s fabulous freshman Ronnie Royal, but Javais McGhee and Antonio Ross stepped up in his stead. All three scored touchdowns in the first half, but Royal was held to 29 yards rushing in the game.
McGhee did a little of everything and it meant a lot – rushing for 94 yards, going 3-for-3 passing for 49 yards, catching two passes for 53 yards and returning the kickoff after Calhoun’s go-ahead touchdown 48 yards. Ross rushed for 81 yards.
“I thought defensively they had a pretty good plan most of the night,” Alexandria coach Todd Ginn said. “I think his plan was basically to kept it away from us and just grind it out, grind it out, grind it out. I thought we were in a pretty good place when we came in at halftime up 20-6. We told the guys we wanted to set the tone and get a stop there (the opening series of the second half) and we didn’t, but give credit to them, they had a good plan.
“I never really thought they would stop us, but the problem tonight is I got for the first time where I didn’t think we would stop them. It was like whoever had the ball last (would win). We had it last and made a terrible play there at the end. Both teams played, I just didn’t think we played well after half like we needed to and they did.”
Both teams host playoff games next Friday. Colbert Heights (4-5) travels to Piedmont. West Point (4-6) is at Alexandria.