“Just a lot of credit goes to Saks,” Piedmont coach Steve Smith said. “They played really well. … They were fast, like we thought. They were physical. They played with a lot of enthusiasm throughout the game.”
Now, Piedmont’s streak of six consecutive seasons with a home game to start the playoffs is in jeopardy. The Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1) travel to Weaver Friday for their final Class 3A, Region 5 game and must defeat the Bearcats (4-4, 4-2) to finish second in the region.
“It’s for second and third. It’s for a home playoff game or having to travel in round one,” Smith said.
No one expects the Weaver game to be a cake walk, certainly not Smith.
“They’re very athletic. They remind me of Saks a lot with the number of guys that they have on the field at one time that can hurt you from any spot of the field,” Smith said.
Smith called Weaver senior Timothy Hawkins, in his fourth year as the starting quarterback, “a better-than-average passer. He’s an excellent runner and he’s been their leader for four years.”
Smith pointed to Delo Forbes, Paul Hubbard, Chris Arnold and Chris Troge’ as other Bearcats with big-play potential. Still, the focus for this week’s practices will probably be on improving Piedmont – particularly the running game that netted just 95 yards against Saks.
“We like to pride ourselves in being able to do both (run and pass) but we are predominantly a running team,” Smith said. “We came in the (Saks) game averaging 325 yards a game rushing. We’ve got to be able to run the ball.”
Smith said the first play of the game was a designed run by quarterback Ty Sparks that gained 42 yards. Late in the first half, Sparks got 27 yards on a scramble. Other than those two carries, 26 rushes netted 26 yards.
“Our guys have performed well all year long and I’ve got complete confidence in what we’re doing and the guys we’ve got in there. We’ve just got to do it better than we did last Friday night,” Smith said.
If Monday’s practice is any indication, the Bulldogs will get back to their winning ways against Weaver.
“It was great,” Smith said of Monday’s work. “I think we’ve got a great bunch of kids and they’re going to respond exactly like you want them to.”
Against Saks, Piedmont lost the ball three times on kickoffs, twice on fumbles and once when no one covered the kick after a fair catch signal and a Saks player fell on the free ball. The Wildcats intercepted two of Sparks’ 29 passes and also blocked a punt.
The game was scoreless until Saks scored on a 52-yard pass on the first play of the Wildcats’ fourth possession. Up 6-0, Saks kicked off and recovered a Piedmont fumble at the Piedmont 18-yard line. It took eight plays but the Wildcats eventually scored. A scoreless tie had become a 12-0 game in Saks’ favor without Piedmont having run an offensive play.
The Bulldogs responded with a two-play, 66-yard drive. Sparks hit Denard Spears for 32 yards on the first play and went back to Spears for a 34-yard touchdown pass on the next snap. The extra point failed and Saks led 12-6 with 2:11 left in the first half.
Saks went three-and-out on the ensuing possession. Spears’ 30-yard punt return took the ball to the Saks 37 with 15 seconds in the half. Forced to scramble, Sparks ran for 27 yards and the clock stopped with 1.8 seconds to move the chains. After spiking the ball, Sparks threw toward Darnell Jackson in the end zone but the pass was broken up by Saks.
“We were thoroughly outplayed in the first half but if we could have made that play we could have gone in at halftime leading,” Smith said.
The second half kickoff went to the Wildcats. A 58-yard pass and a 15-yard run carried Saks to a first-and-goal situation at the Piedmont 5. On fourth-and-1, the Bulldogs held. After the defensive stand, Piedmont couldn’t get anything going on offense. A punt attempt was blocked. Saks started at the Piedmont 10 and passed for a touchdown on first down.
Then the second half became deja vu all over again. Piedmont fumbled the ensuing kickoff. Saks started from the Piedmont 47 and scored again for a 26-6 lead.
The Bulldogs moved to the Saks 27. A pass from there was intercepted at the 1. On the first play, lineman Payton Young tackled the ball carrier in the end zone for a safety, cutting Piedmont’s deficit to 26-8. The free kick left Piedmont in possession at the Saks 45. Sparks and Darnell Jackson combined on a 27-yard pass but the Bulldogs eventually turned the ball over on downs.
Another Saks punt led to an eight-play, 55-yard scoring drive by Piedmont. With 7:24 left, Dreek Thompson took a Sparks’ pass 20 yards for a score and Easton Kirk’s kick made it 26-15. Saks covered an onside kick at the Saks 41. Five plays later, the Wildcats led 33-5 with 4:24 left.
Piedmont failed to cover the ensuing kickoff and Saks was in business again at the Piedmont 34. The scoring ended four plays later with 2:35 to go.
“We played really well on defense through the first three quarters,” said Smith. “We put our defense in bad positions with the two turnovers.”
Sparks netted 62 yards rushing on eight carries. He was 15-for-29 passing for 207 yards. Spears had 10 catches for 144 yards. C.J. Savage caught three passes for 16 yards. Thompson’s 20-yarder was his only catch as was Jackson’s 27-yarder.
Neonta Alexander led in tackles with 19. Taylor Hayes recorded 15 tackles. Jared Prater had 11 stops. Young made 10 tackles. Thompson had nine tackles, Exavyer Jackson eight and Darnell Jackson seven.