Piedmont, ranked No. 1 in the Alabama Sportswriters Association Class 3A poll since the fifth week of the season, opened its push for a second state football championship with a 41-6 dismissal of visiting J.B. Pennington.
The Bulldogs (11-0), champions of Region 5, now travel to Tuscumbia to take on No. 10 Deshler (8-3), the third playoff qualifier from Region 8.
Deshler opened the playoffs on the road and defeated Hanceville 42-21 to advance to the second round.
“Deshler’s got a great tradition, great history. They’ve won a lot of football games up there,” Piedmont coach Steve Smith said. “I know it’s going to be a big-time challenge, but those are the kinds of games you like to play. I think our kids will be real excited about playing that game.”
The Bulldogs certainly seemed excited Friday about their seventh trip to the playoffs in Smith’s seven seasons as head coach. On defense, Piedmont held Pennington without a first down in the opening half and forced seven punts.
“We felt like we could get after the quarterback with our normal rushers up front. We did that early on and kind of took them out of their game plan, I think,” Smith said. “Up front, being able to control the line of scrimmage and just take away the running game entirely, making them have to throw the ball, I thought that was big in the defensive game plan.”
The work on defense resulted in field position deep in Pennington territory throughout the first half, and the offense took advantage with five touchdowns by five different players for a 35-0 halftime lead.
Piedmont’s initial drive started at the Tigers’ 30-yard line after a sack by Jamie Major led to a punt from the 10. On third-and-goal from the 2, Smith went to his ‘heavy’ package and Jaylan Johnson scored up the middle. Dillon Terry, 5-for-5 on extra points for the game, made it 7-0 less than three minutes into the contest.
Major and Exavyer Jackson combined for a sack and an 8-yard loss the second time Pennington had the ball. A shanked punt put the Bulldogs in business at the Tiger 14. Quarterback Cade Bradley made it a one-play possession with a scoring pass to Haden Downey over the middle.
Senior linebacker and occasional fullback Collin Bradley ran the ball five consecutive plays for a one-man, 32-yard drive the next time the Bulldogs had the ball. His 10-yard run around left end made it 21-0 with 3:30 still to play in the initial quarter. Piedmont punted for the only time on the night just before the end of the first quarter.
A minute into the second quarter, Piedmont was on the move again. Runs of 13 and 37 yards by Dreek Thompson took the ball to the Pennington 8 and Smith went ‘heavy’ again.
This time cornerback Laphonso Burroughs scored on an 8-yard run. Cody Daughtry’s punt return got the Bulldogs field position at the Tiger 32. Eight plays later, a 12-yard gain by Darnell Jackson took the ball to the 1 and Smith called for the ‘heavy’ package once more. Defensive end Marquez Gamble took the ball up the middle for a 35-0 advantage with 2:55 left before intermission.
“We had several of those short-yardage situations and we had different guys that got in there in that heavy set,” Smith said.
Collin Bradley, Burroughs, Gamble and Johnson, all seniors, each scored for the first time in their high school careers.
Eight players carried the ball in the first half for Piedmont as the Bulldogs rushed for 188 yards. In the second half, no starter ran the ball and six additional players had at least three carries. The reserves added 171 yards to Piedmont’s rushing numbers.
After a scoreless third quarter, Piedmont reserves drove 73 yards in 14 plays, controlling the ball for more than seven minutes, for Piedmont’s final touchdown. Freshman Neonta Alexander capped the drive with a 10-yard run at left end with 2:09 to play.
Pennington scored on a 20-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Brandon Butts to Timothy Johnson with five seconds on the clock. Butts was 10 for 25 passing on the night for 117 yards, but six of his 10 completions – good for 113 yards – came in the fourth quarter. The Tigers finished with negative yards rushing.
Jackson led Piedmont on the ground with 70 yards on seven attempts. Dunbar ran 10 times for 66 yards. Collin Bradley, Tyler Lusk, Trevaughn Carpenter, Taylor Hayes and Thompson each netted at least 25 rushing yards. Cade Bradley was 2 for 3 passing for 21 yards. Alec Johnson had a 7-yard reception.