For the second time this season, the Bulldogs trailed by two touchdowns on the road against a quality Class 3A, Region 6 opponent and came away with a victory. This time it was against Saks and the 33-21 win earned Piedmont its second consecutive Region 6 title.
“You want to be that No. 1 seed,” Piedmont coach Steve Smith said. “There are a lot of advantages, particularly in the first two rounds of the playoffs. … To be able to repeat in a region that I think has six quality playoff-caliber teams is a great accomplishment.”
Piedmont is now 7-0 in region games and hosts Ashville in its final region contest Friday. Saks completed its region schedule 6-2. Glencoe and Weaver can also finish 6-2 with wins Friday, potentially creating a three-way tie for the final three playoff berths from Region 6.
For most of the night, Piedmont’s undefeated season, the Class 3A No. 1 ranking of the Bulldogs (8-0) was in serious jeopardy. The Wildcats came to Jack Stewart Field intent on toppling the Bulldogs and claiming the region championship themselves. But three fourth quarter touchdowns turned the game around for Piedmont.
“Saks had a great game plan and they bought it to us,” Piedmont’s Smith said. “They did a lot of good stuff.”
He noted that the Bulldogs started all junior and seniors who had “played in a lot of big games.”
“Our guys never panicked. I think that showed a lot about their character but experience can’t be overlooked,” he said.
“When you get in these games, it’s about field position and turnovers, and that was a big part of the outcome,” Saks coach Clint Smith said.
Midway through the second quarter, Saks wide receiver Tre Smith came across the middle and broke free behind the defense. Quarterback Chase Johnson hit him in full stride. The play gained 60 yards before a Piedmont defender tackled Smith at the Piedmont 6-yard line. Cordarius Cooper scored from inches away on fourth down and the first of three extra points by Josh Wilson made it 7-0 Saks with 6:28 left before halftime.
Piedmont fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Davontae Young recovered for the Wildcats at the Piedmont 21. Saks capitalized quickly on Justin Grier’s 18-yard scamper to the left.
It looked as if Saks would lead 14-0 at halftime when Johnson punted and Piedmont began its seventh possession of the first half at the Piedmont 10 with 1:28 to go in the second quarter. Mixing passes and runs, the Bulldogs snapped the ball 10 times in their hurry-up offense. With 3.4 seconds left, Piedmont scored on a 20-yard pass into the end zone from quarterback Chris Strott to wide receiver Sloan Garner. A 2-point conversion play failed but Saks had lost its shutout, and Piedmont was no longer back on its heels.
“I think a big key in the game was that big score they had late in the first half,” Saks’ Smith said.
The third quarter was a punting battle between Johnson and Piedmont’s Cade Bradley and Bradley kept the Wildcats pinned deep in Saks territory. Saks possessions began at the Saks 19, Saks 11 and Saks 11.
With 1:22 left in the third, Piedmont took over at the Piedmont 45. Aided by a pass interference penalty and a 20-yard run from Sarandon Dunbar, Jamie Major scored on a 3-yard run but another failed 2-point conversion attempt left Saks up 14-12 with 18 seconds remaining in the third.
The fourth quarter opened much like the third – punt Saks, punt Piedmont, punt Saks. Five minutes into the fourth, Piedmont got a 69-yard gain on a pass over the middle from Strott to Landon Pruitt. Pruitt got to the 9, and Dunbar scored on the next play. Strott-to-Garner made it 20-14 Piedmont with 6:39 to play.
Trailing for the first time, Saks picked up two first downs then fumbled and Clay Dent recovered for Piedmont at the Saks 40. Three plays later, Strott broke through on the left side and scored standing up. Another 2-point play failed, leaving the Bulldogs ahead 26-14.
Dent tackled Johnson for no gain on a fourth-and-10 play from the Saks 20 with 2:44 remaining. Nose guard Exavyer Jackson, in on the power ‘I’ package for Piedmont, scored from 12 yards out, and Dillon Terry’s kick made it 33-14.
Saks’ final touchdown came with 1.5 seconds to go on a 14-yard pass from Johnson to Marquis Townsend.
“In the first half, both defenses were dictating everything,” said Saks’ Smith. “For three-and-a-half quarters we went toe-to-toe with them.”
Strott finished 10-for 21 passing for 182 yards. The senior ran 11 times for 75 yards. Dunbar finished with nine carries for 61 yards. Pruitt had two catches for 95 yards and Garner four for 60 yards.
Johnson completed 18 of his 30 passes for 190 yards. Tre Smith had five receptions for 82 yards. Cooper caught three passes for 33 yards and Townsend three for 32 yards. Grier’s 39 yards on 10 carries was best on the ground for the Wildcats.