By Al Muskewitz, East Alabama Sports Today
FYFFE — In the week leading up to Friday night’s Class 3A semifinal game, Piedmont coach Steve Smith spoke at length of the need for his team to take advantage of the opportunities when it got them.
The Bulldogs had plenty of opportunities to get a leg up on Fyffe, but most were met with misfortune and the top-ranked Red Devils ended Piedmont’s season 14-6 on a rainy night in DeKalb County.
The Bulldogs (12-2), the defending 3A state champs, outgained their hosts by a nearly 3-to-1 margin (242 yards to 89) but in the end they needed a couple more yards. They got inside the Fyffe 20 four times in the game, but had only one touchdown to show for it.
The Red Devils found the end zone twice – once on defense – compared to only once for the Bulldogs.
“We had three or four possessions down there in the red zone and just didn’t get anything out of it,” Smith said. ‘You’re playing a game like this right here against a team like Fyffe and get those opportunities you’ve got to take advantage of it.
“Hats off to them, though. They did a good job buckling down on the defensive side and keeping us out of the end zone. That’s what great teams do.”
The Bulldogs got inside the 20 on their game-opening drive, then turned it over on downs, falling short of the yard to gain at the 9.
They immediately answered Fyffe’s first touchdown on a 3-yard run by Jack Hayes, but Ike Rowell blocked the extra point to leave it a 7-6 game.
They got inside the 20 at the end of the half, too, but came away empty-handed after a couple squirrelly .
Hayes got caught in the grasp of a defender and tried to avoid the sack, but his backwards throw went out of bounds 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Hayes was sacked and fumbled on the next play.
“The Fyffe team, much like our team, they don’t give up many 50-, 60-yard plays,” Smith said. “They’re going to make you continue to snap it and drive the ball. As long as you’re getting 3-4-5 yards a pop and staying in front of the chains everything’s good. But if you have those negative plays or penalties or things of that nature it’s amplified more in a game like this because the yards are so tough to come by on either side.”
The rain picked up in the second half and it affected the Bulldogs’ effectiveness.
Hayes was intercepted on their first two possessions of the half, the second of which Kyle Dukes returned 30 yards for an insurance touchdown.
“The defense won the game for us tonight,” Fyffe coach Paul Benefield said. “We didn’t muster anything on offense. They really were more physical and kicked our tail there a lot. Turnovers and wet field second half probably had something to do with it, but we survived. The big interception was probably the difference in the game.”
Hayes was in the grasp of a defender when he threw the pass that was intercepted. All of his turnovers came trying to make something happen.
“Jack Hayes is a winner; he’s trying to make plays and help his team win and every now and then that kind of stuff happens,” Smith said. “Wouldn’t trade him for anybody. In my opinion he’s the best in Class 3A and we’re glad to have him.”
Even though they were down the Bulldogs had every confidence they could rally.
They got the ball back at their own 7 with 10:19 to play and drove all the way to the Fyffe 18 before they started backing up again.
This time, a motion penalty saved them from a loss on a bad snap, but the next play they weren’t so lucky. Elijah Johnson covered up a bad snap that lost 15 yards. Hayes completed a 18-yard pass to get the yards back and then some, then on fourth-and-12 the Bulldogs tried to run a double reverse with Austin Estes and Jadon Calhoun.
The first exchange was clean, but Estes’ pitch to Calhoun was high and bounced away and the Red Devils recovered to basically preserve the victory.
Fyffe now plays Montgomery Catholic for a third straight state championship next week at Bryant Denny Stadium. The Red Devils, who won the last two 2A crowns before moving up, have won 44 games in a row.
“I am (pleased to be going back to the finals), I just can’t be right now, I reckon,” Benefield said. “I’m just still in shock a little bit about what all happened there at the end.”
The Red Devils tried to work the clock all the way to the end, but didn’t quite make it. They punted with 5.6 seconds left and there was initial confusion over whether they downed it properly.
The Bulldogs picked it up and ran it all the way to the end zone with the clock at 0:00 and their players were looking to be able to set up for a tying two-point conversion, but the officials were leaving the field having whistled it over.
Smith said he wasn’t certain enough about the rule to question it or use it as an excuse for the way things turned out for the Bulldogs.
“We battled hard, felt we came up here and laid it all on the line and played our hardest,” Smith said. “Just didn’t do enough to get it in the end zone.”