“This group of seniors has been part of a state championship as freshmen and now three consecutive region championships. Those are some great accomplishments and I wanted to make sure that we dwelt on that and were able to tell them how proud we were of them,” Smith said later.
Piedmont’s third play of the game resulted in an interception when Cade Bradley’s pass bounced off the hands of receiver C.J. Savage and into the hands of Wildcats defensive back Tre Smith. After Smith returned the pick to the Piedmont 40-yard line, senior quarterback Chase Johnson threw deep to Smith for a gain of 32 yards. With the game barely two minutes old, Saks was knocking on Piedmont’s door at the 8. Four plays later, the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs inside the 1.
A deep throw by the Bulldogs on first down was incomplete, then a short throw from Bradley to Cass McCord picked up 17 yards. The completion also set the stage for the first of four consecutive big-play touchdowns the Piedmont offense delivered in the opening half. Sophomore running back Dreek Thompson got to the edge at left end and simply ran away from every Wildcat defender.
“With what we do in the shotgun, so much lateral movement, a lot of times you’re fearful to try to run the ball out of that situation because you know you’re susceptible to giving up a safety,” Smith said. “The pass that Cade threw out to Cass McCord for about 17 yards, and got us off the goalline, is probably not going to show up as one of the biggest plays in the game in the stat column because of all the long touchdown plays, but I thought that play probably turned the tide. The fourth-down stop obviously was the biggest, then that play getting us off the goal line. The very next play was the one Dreek broke, and I think we may have caught them in a sitution of dejection after we got off the goal line when they had us pinned so deep. “
Dillon Terry, who booted five consecutive extra points before missing on his final attempt, made it 7-0 Piedmont with 8:11 left in the first quarter.
Piedmont’s third possession lasted just two plays, ending on a 76-yard scoring run by freshman Darnell Jackson with 13 seconds left in the first period. Early in the second quarter, Jackson’s interception and return put Piedmont in business again at the Saks 45. On fourth-and-1, Thompson scored for the second time on a 36-yard run. Thompson added his third touchdown on a 39-yard run through the interior of the line with 2:03 left in the first half.
Thompson finished with five carries for 164 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first half. It was his second consecutive game with multiple scores.
“Dreek’s always had a talent with the ball in his hands. In our system, we try our best not to run those guys in the ground. He starts for us at safety. He had been in that comminttee that had been running the football through the first five or six games, and then for various reasons we’ve had to shuffle some people around the last couple of weeks. He’s making some plays with it in his hands. You kind of ride the hot hand,” Smith said.
Saks went three-and-out, punting from its 14, and Savage returned the kick 40 yards to the Saks 10. On third down, Jackson lined up in the left slot, came back to Bradley for a handoff and headed toward right end on what appeared to be a favorite Piedmont play, a speed sweep. Before turning the corner, Jackson stopped and completed and 8-yard pass to McCord, alone in the end zone, with 26 seconds on the clock. McCord had three catches for 37 yards in the first half. Piedmont didn’t attempt a pass after intermission.
The 35-0 halftime score effectively ended Saks’ region title aspirations. Senior running back LaDarius Young, who had rushed for almost 1,000 yards for the Wildcats before injuring a knee late in their Week 6 win over Glencoe, did not play for the second consecutive week. In his absence, Saks was unable to generate much of a running threat.
“LaDarius can hit the home run,” said Saks head coach Jonathan Miller. “He sees a lot of cuts and things that your normal backs don’t see, so it does take something away from our offense, but tonight we just played a good team. They’ve got a good shot at playing for a state championship.”
“Our guys got a little frazzled in the first half,” Miller continued. “The one thing that we were worried about as coaches coming over here was the possibility of some adversity happening in the first or second quarters and not handling it well with a young team, and we sure didn’t tonight. We just got too frazzled to play football.”
While the Wildcats won’t enter the playoffs as region winner, they have clinched the Region 5 runner-up berth.
Piedmont added to its lead late in the third quarter on a 1-yard run by Sarandon Dunbar. Dunbar accounted for 48 yards of the 62-yard drive, and Tre Reese added a 14-yard carry. Saks scored with 4:54 to play on a 6-yard run by sophomore Devin Harris. Johnson had completions of 31 yards to Smith and 44 yards to Harris on consecutive plays to set up the score. Josh Wilson’s kick set the final score.
Johnson was 9-for-22 passing for 179 yards. Smith had six receptions for 124 yards, four catches and 85 yards in the first half.
“We felt like they would come out and throw the football all over the field against us,” Smith said of Piedmont’s preparation for Saks’ Johnson-to-Smith threat. “Even knowing that and preparing for that, they still made some plays. That just shows the caliber athletes that Saks has. I was proud of our guys for not really giving up the big home run play. We gave up two or three passes over 30 yards, but we never gave up the big play for a score. I thought that was a big key to the game.”