Top-ranked Piedmont capitalized off one Leeds turnover and cashed it in for a touchdown. The Bulldogs then made two defensive stops in the fourth quarter and held on for a 7-0 football victory Thursday at the Field of Champions, propelling them to 5-0 on the season. The second-ranked Green Wave dropped to 4-1.
"Those are the best games to play," Piedmont senior defensive lineman Marquez Gamble said. "Blowouts are fun, but when you're close like this, everything's louder, faster, harder. It's football. I love it."
Gamble wasn't a risk on Thursday night. He was the Bulldogs' sure-thing.
He recovered a fumble at the Green Wave 12-yard line near the end of the first quarter to set up the game's lone touchdown early in the second quarter. Senior quarterback Cade Bradley connected with senior tailback Jamie Major on a 9-yard pass for the score. Dillon Terry's extra point made it 7-0 Bulldogs.
Gamble made his presence felt again late in the game inside Bulldog territory. It was his 11-yard sack of Leeds freshman quarterback Tadaryll Mitchell that set up a third-and-21 at the Green Wave 49 with just under a minute remaining. Two incomplete passes by Mitchell and two kneel downs by Bradley secured the win for the Bulldogs.
"I was all emotional after I made that sack," Gamble said. "It was third-and-long, and there was no way they were going to get a first down on us that long. It's all about heart and passion. When we have our backs against the wall, we just have to keep pushing forward and it went our way. We stopped them."
Piedmont coach Steve Smith said Gamble "controlled the game."
"Marquez is a great player for us, and we don't want to let him go," Smith said. "It seems like he's been playing with us forever. He's been a four-year starter, and he'll make somebody a great player on the next level. He's an outstanding talent, an outstanding player. Big players make big plays in big games. You saw him rise to the top tonight on the defensive line."
For Smith and Leeds coach Keith Etheredge, the game went as both expected it to.
"We knew turnovers could be the difference in the game," Etheredge said. "We turned it over one time. They won the turnover battle, and they won the football game. We missed some opportunities and shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times. You can't do that against a good football team like them."
Added Smith: "Tonight, our defense played extremely well, and offensively, we didn't turn the football over. That's huge in a game like this. They made the one fumble down there and we were able to get a short field. We were able to capitalize, and that was the difference in the ball game."
Both teams had their scoring chances, but both teams' defenses came up with big stop after big stop.
The game turned into a battle of field position, with Bradley, also the Bulldog punter, pinning the Green Wave deep on several occasions.
Bradley punted seven times for a 37.7 yard average. He also completed 7 of 18 passes for 86 yards and touchdown.
"We just did good keeping them on their side of the field," Bradley said. "The defense did good stopping them every time. When we did have to punt, our special teams got on the punts and kept them out of good field position."
The only time the Bulldogs' faltered in punt return coverage was around the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter. Leeds senior return man Jonathan Hagler took the ball at his own 20, broke a few tackles and darted to the Piedmont 27.
"Jonathan Hagler has done a great job for us returning punts," Etheredge said. "We knew if we could block their gunners, we'd have a chance to get a couple of good punt returns. He did a great job coming up and fielding the ball."
Leeds marched the ball down to the Bulldog 14, but back-to-back lost yardage plays and an incomplete pass set up a fourth-and-11 at the 16 with 3:24 to go. The Green Wave went for fourth down, but Marshall was pressured by the Bulldogs' Terry and stopped for no gain to turn the ball over on downs.
Marshall completed just 2 of 9 passes for 20 yards.
"We had some guys running open, but we just sort of missed them," Etheredge said. "We've got a ninth-grade quarterback, and he's going to be a good one. He's going to be one of those guys before he leaves picking people apart. Right now, we've still got to run the football, establish the run to set up the pass.
"There were a couple of times we'd run the counter move and have people open, but he's just hesitant to throw it. He's young. He doesn't want to do anything to cost the team. He's got to be a little more comfortable and be a little more confident in his receivers and put the ball there and give them a chance to catch it."
The Green Wave defense held Piedmont to three-and-out on its next possession, setting up another return opportunity for Hagler. This time, Hagler fielded the ball at midfield and only netted 10 yards on the return, but Leeds had the ball at the Bulldog 40 and 1:42 left on the clock to tie the game.
Once again, the Bulldog 'D' came up big and turned Leeds away. The unit held the Green Wave to a little over 100 yards of total offense.
"I can't say enough good things about Coach (James) Blanchard and all our defensive coaches (Everett Kelley, Mark Mitchell, Patrick Walker, Oscar Bonds, Matt Glover and Kevin Bedwell)," Smith said. "Those guys do an excellent job assisting Coach Blanchard with the defensive game plan. I thought they did a great job, and the kids did a great job of executing.
"As the game wore on, we had confidence the defense was going to be able to keep them out of the end zone and keep them pinned back on their half of the field. I thought field position was the key in the game tonight."