CENTRE – Piedmont football coach Steve Smith understands the importance of winning the opening coin toss. He knows if he can get into a situation with potential scores at the end of the first and beginning of the second halves, it can break a team’s will.
That’s exactly what happened in the Class 3A defending state champions’ game at Cherokee County on Friday night.
After the Warriors cut the Bulldog lead to a touchdown with 3:22 to go in the first half, the Bulldogs used a 56-yard kickoff return by Jaden Calhoun to get inside Warrior territory. Sophomore quarterback Jack Hayes methodically led a 10-play drive capped by his 5-yard score with 10 seconds to go in the first half, giving the Bulldogs a 13-point advantage.
Piedmont received the ball to open the second half and scored again, this time on a 49-yard scoring strike from Hayes to Austin Estes.
Those bookend scores took the wind out the Warriors as Piedmont marched to a 39-7 victory.
“I’m a big believer if you can score right before the half and you can get the ball in the second half and score again, that can really deflate the other team. That’s something we put a lot of emphasis on,” Smith said. “If we can put it in the end zone on both of those occasions, there’s a lot of momentum you can gain. Centre was playing with a lot of emotion. They were getting after it at 14-7, but I think that score right before the half kind of broke their spirit a little bit. We scored early in the third quarter and it kind of snowballed there.”
“This game’s played on momentum,” Smith said. “We got some good momentum going there at the end of the first half and carried it over into the third quarter.”
As Smith said, three Bulldog possessions in the third quarter resulted in Piedmont (1-0) touchdowns in the rout.
After the Hayes-to-Estes touchdown connection and a Warrior punt, Elijah Johnson scored on a 17-yard run. Another Warrior punt yielded another Bulldog score. This time Hayes hit fullback Sean Smith on a 3-yard toss for the final touchdown of the game.
Johnson led the Bulldog rushers with 64 yards on 13 carries and two scores. Hayes added 37 yards on 10 totes and a touchdown. He was also 10-of-13 passing for 191 yards and two touchdowns. Estes caught three passes for 65 yards and a touchdown.
“Our kids got after it hard. They played with a lot of passion. They played with a sense of urgency. I’m proud of them for that,” Coach Smith said.
Things were getting off to a good start for the Warriors (1-1) on their opening drive of the game, but quarterback Slade Alexander was intercepted by Noah Reedy near midfield to end the drive. The Bulldogs capitalized after the turnover on an 8-play drive. Jakari Foster capped with his 2-yard touchdown run to put the Bulldogs in front 7-0.
The Warriors’ ensuing drive resulted in another turnover. This time, an Alexander fumble on a fourth-down play was recovered by the Bulldogs’ Trent Young at the Piedmont 22.
Piedmont’s offense capitalized again on Johnson’s first touchdown of the game, a 4-yard score, to put the Bulldogs in front 14-0 with 9:50 to go in the first half.
Later in the second quarter, Smith tried some trickery deep in his own territory by faking a punt on fourth down. Calhoun took the snap and ran, falling just short of a first down at the Piedmont 20.
“That was a dumb call for a 26-year veteran,” Coach Smith said. “I put our defense in a terrible situation there. That one is all on me.”
The fake punt gave the Warriors some much-needed life, and they capitalized on Alexander’s 14-yard touchdown toss to Courtlin Brooks. The touchdown cut Piedmont’s lead to 14-7, setting the stage for the Bulldogs to pull away.
“Obviously getting it to 14-7 there was big, but then we turned around and give up a big return. The momentum swung back in their favor,” Cherokee County head coach Jacob Kelley said. “Hat’s off to them. Their guys executed a whole lot better than we did. We knew going in we couldn’t let their skill guys beat us. We didn’t do a good job of preventing any of that. We let their guys get the big play. We let the guys they’re counting on implement their game plan. You’re not going to beat a team like Piedmont doing that.”
Alexander led the Warriors by completing 5-of-12 pass attempts for 56 yards and touchdown. He also had two interceptions. Brooks was his top target with three catches for 35 yards. Damien Ramsey added 54 yards on 10 carries.
Piedmont hosts Saks on Friday, while the Warriors host Springville.
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