After the Piedmont band played the alma mater, players, coaches and the throng of Piedmont fans who had made the three-hour drive to the game exchanged hugs and handshakes and took pictures for a long time.
“I thought our defense played lights out (Friday night). We didn’t do a whole lot on offense. They stymied us all night long but we made big plays when we had to make them and the kickoff return was huge,” said Piedmont coach Steve Smith.
After a one-year absence, Piedmont returns to the quarterfinal round of the AHSAA playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. The Bulldogs (11-1) host defending Class 3A state champion Madison Academy (12-0). The Mustangs are led by junior running back and defensive back Kerryon Johnson, the MVP of last year’s state championship game. While Johnson is the most recognizable name on Madison Academy’s roster, the Mustangs have a wealth of talent around him.
“They’re really sound in just about every aspect of the game. They’ve got a good football team. They don’t make a whole lot of mistakes on either side of the ball,” Smith said. “They’re very solid.”
Entering the fourth quarter at Tuscumbia, prospects for a victory celebration by Piedmont looked dim. Deshler led 19-13 after three quarters. Piedmont was struggling on offense. In eight possessions, the Bulldogs had been unable to manage more than one first down in any possession. Piedmont’s two touchdowns had come on two plays – a 68-yard pass late in the first half and a 75-yard kickoff return to start the second half.
Deshler’s offensive woes came in the final 30 yards to the Piedmont end zone. The Tigers turned the ball over on downs at the Piedmont 23-yard line on the game’s first possession when Piedmont’s defense stopped a fourth-and-5 run a scant two inches short of a first down.
A blocked punt gave Deshler the ball at the Piedmont 31 on the Tigers’ third possession. On first down, safety Tyler Lusk dropped a runner for a 3-yard loss. When a fourth-down pass was broken up by Denard Spears, Deshler had lost the ball on downs again, this time at the Piedmont 28.
Piedmont punted again and Deshler moved from its 34 to the Piedmont 12 on eight consecutive running plays. On fourth-and-2, Deshler’s Carson McGregory kicked a 28-yard field goal with 5:45 left in the first half. A minute later, a second blocked punt had Deshler in business at the Piedmont 33. This time, the defense held at the Piedmont 14 and McGregory sent the ball through the uprights from 31 yards out.
On the ensuing kickoff, Bayley Blanchard’s return of six yards reached the Piedmont 32. Looking for a spark, Smith inserted Lusk at quarterback and went for a deep throw on first down. Lusk’s pass found C.J. Savage between cornerback Chandler Brown and safety Cecil Kennedy. Brown seemed to attempt an interception but misread the strength of Lusk’s arm. Savage grabbed the pass on the move and the play became a 68-yard touchdown.
“The touchdown pass to C.J. was really a perfectly executed throw on his part, being able to get it in that tight little window,” Smith said. “I want to commend him for that throw because that’s a very tough throw to make.”
Easton Kirk’s extra point was perfect and Piedmont led 7-6 with 1:24 to go.
After a kickoff return to its 27, Deshler looked to throw deep, too, but Payton Young sacked quarterback Sam Howard for an 11-yard loss and the Tigers were satisfied for a no-gain running play before letting the clock expire.
The second half couldn’t have started any better for Piedmont as Darnell Jackson returned the kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown. Jackson said he sensed the Bulldogs needed to add to the momentum they had gained just before halftime and called for the ball so teammate Tre Reese wouldn’t have to make a fair catch. A block from Reese sprung him initially.
“I called him off. I hit a hole he blocked for me. It was a great block,” Jackson said.
Kirk’s kick was blocked but Piedmont led 13-6 just 13 seconds into the second half.
The lead lasted less than three minutes. Deshler scored its only touchdown on a 44-yard pass and McGregory’s kick made it 13-13. Piedmont punted and a 12-yard return combined with a major penalty for a late hit at the end of the return set Deshler up at the Piedmont 38. The Tigers reached the Piedmont 13 before linebacker Jaret Prater sniffed out a receiver reverse and tackled the runner for a loss of nine yards on first down. Three plays later, McGregory’s 30-yard field goal had Deshler ahead 16-13.
Piedmont’s next possession ended in just two plays. Lusk was leveled as he released a pass toward Jackson. The ball was intercepted by Brown and returned to the Piedmont 12.
Again, the defense rose to the occasion. On fourth down at the 6, McGregory kicked his fourth field goal, this one from 22 yards away with 55 seconds left in the third.
“Some of the positions that our defense was put in, to hold them to field goals was really good,” Smith said.
The fourth quarter didn’t begin well for Piedmont. Lusk was intercepted at midfield 14 seconds into the fourth and a pass interference call moved Deshler to the Piedmont 30. The Bulldogs caught a break when a touchdown pass was erased on a holding call against the Tigers. From the Piedmont 40, Deshler punted into the end zone with 9:33 to play.
With the ball at the Piedmont 20, Taylor Hayes entered the game at quarterback and picked up two yards on a keeper. Deshler was flagged for an offside infraction. Ty Sparks, who had struggled at quarterback in the first half, returned and completed an 8-yard pass to Savage for a first down then Hayes ran for 13 yards and another first down at the Piedmont 48.
Then hearts sank. A holding penalty, a pass batted down at the line, a negative play and a delay penalty sent the Bulldogs back to the Piedmont 32 on third down, 26 yards from a first down. Sparks dropped back then found Cody Daughtry on a slant route over the middle that Daughtry carried for a 36-yard gain.
Despair turned to joy then more joy when Sparks combined with Spears for 14 yards on the ensuing play. Hayes kept Piedmont ahead of the sticks with a 6-yard run then slipped on the wet field for a 2-yard loss. On third-and-6 from the Deshler 14, Smith elected to roll the dice. Spears out-maneuvered the cornerback and Sparks delivered the ball to him in the end zone with 5:14 to go.
Sparks, who connected on his first pass of the game then missed on five consecutive throws, was his usual composed self on the touchdown drive, going 4-for-5 with his only incompletion coming on the batted pass.
“He came back in the fourth quarter,” Smith said.
With the score 19-19, Piedmont needed another big play from its special teams. The snap on the extra point attempt was low but Blanchard, the holder, got the ball up for Kirk and the kick got the Bulldogs their eventual game-winning point.
“For a 10th-grade holder to get that ball down in that situation with the game tied on the road and for a 9th-grade kicker to stutter-step and be able to punch that thing through, that was a big play by two of our kids on special teams,” Smith said.
Deshler got two more possessions. On the first, two running plays netted five yards but Lusk made the crucial play on second down when he tipped away a deep pass intended for Howard’s favorite target, tight end B.J. Bailey.
“I didn’t know at first. I was booking it to get there,” Lusk said. “I just put my hand up before he could get him on the ball.”
Deshler punted out of bounds and Piedmont took over at the Piedmont 38. Jackson took a counter play 11 yards on first down. Hayes ran twice and netted five yards. On third down, Jackson got four yards and Smith sent his “kill punt” unit on the field after a timeout. Sparks’ punt traveled about 30 yards in the air then began rolling toward the Deshler end zone. Daughtry flew, literally, to the ball and downed it at the Deshler 1 with 1:52 left.
“Cody Daughtry laying out and blocking that ball and knocking it down on the 1-yard line, that’s huge,” Smith said.
Howard threw to Bailey for 14 yards on first down. From the 15, Howard looked for Bailey again but Hayes hit Howard’s arm as he released the pass. Linebacker Neonta Alexander stepped in front of Bailey for an interception at the Deshler 20 with 1:31 left.
“Our defense put pressure on the quarterback and forced him to make the short throw. I just stepped up on No. 25 (Bailey),” Alexander said.
Hayes ran for nine yards then Deshler called its second timeout of the half. After Piedmont was penalized five yards, Hayes ran for seven more yards assuring that Deshler would not get the ball again. Sparks took a knee in the victory formation and the game was finished.
Hayes ended with 39 of Piedmont’s 69 yards on the ground on nine carries. After a 1-for-6 start, Sparks finished 5-for-11 passing to 90 yards. Lusk accounted 68 yards through the air and 11 on the ground.
“I thought all three of our quarterbacks brought something to the table to contribute to the win,” Smith said.
Deshler ran for 86 yards in the first half, 54 on one possession, but netted just 26 in the second half. Hayes and Alexander, the inside backers, totaled 29 tackles with Hayes getting 17 of those. Smith said as much as Deshler ran between the tackles, if Alexander and Hayes had not been making stops all night the Tigers’ backs would have been “gashing us for 10, 12, 15 yards a carry.”
Senior defensive end Exavyer Jackson was next on the tackle chart with 11. He had one of Piedmont’s two sacks and broke up a pass.
“We knew when we were scouting them that they were a more dominant team running. We had a little chip on our shoulders because we woke up (Friday) morning and saw in the paper where their coach said the defensive line was the weak part of the team on the defensive side. We used that as motivation,” Jackson said.
Safety Dreek Thompson had nine tackles. Lusk and Darnell Jackson made seven stops apiece. Each had a sack and Jackson broke up two passes. Prater had six tackles, three of those behind the line. Reese and Young each made four stops on the line. Blanchard had three tackles and Dalton Barber made two.