As the second-place finisher in Class 3A, Region 5, Piedmont hosts Winfield, the No. 3 team from Region 7, in the opening round of the AHSAA playoffs Friday at 7 p.m. David McKinney is in his first year as head coach at Winfield after spending the previous six seasons at Gordo. The Pirates finished their regular season 6-4.
“They’re awfully similar to Glencoe,” Piedmont head coach Steve Smith said of Winfield. “Very aggressive, special teams and defense get to the ball really well and offensively they just keep trying to hit you and hit you and hit you with those zone plays until you get out of your running lanes and they’re able to cut one back for a big gainer.”
Expect to see Winfield run out of a shotgun with one running back with the quarterback in the backfield. The Pirates will send a pair of wide receivers to each side or three wide-outs to one side and one to the other. McKinney very seldom utilizes a tight end.
“They’re a spread team but they’re looking to do a lot more of the zone and zone keepers and counters,” Smith said. “They’re not a power running team as far as having a lead blocking back – just a lot of zones, zone cutbacks. Things like that are what they do really well.”
Lincoln tried to challenge the Bulldogs through the air. Senior quarterback Chance Byrd was 8-for-23 passing for 102 yards and one touchdown but gave up a whopping four interceptions. The Bulldogs also broke up another eight pass attempts. Safety Dreek Thompson ended Lincoln’s second possession with Piedmont’s first interception and returned the ball about 50 yards to the Lincoln 14-yard line. Cody Daughtry’s pick came on the second play of the second quarter and gave Piedmont’s offense a short field from the Lincoln 22.
In the fourth quarter, Bayley Blanchard killed a Lincoln drive that had reached the Piedmont 27 on an interception with 8:39 to play. Austin Brazier got Piedmont’s final pick on the last play of the game as Byrd attempted to throw deep toward the Piedmont goal line.
In addition to his interception, Daughtry broke up four passes. Safety Tyler Lusk broke up two throws. Blanchard and Darnell Jackson each broke up one pass.
“Cody’s been picked at a little bit this year but I thought he had a really good game. A lot of people don’t even go at Darnell. … Darnell’s kind of developed a reputation on that side as a lock-down type guy. Tyler and Dreek both do a really good job covering slot receivers and then, when Dreek rolled his ankle, Bayley came in and he had an interception. He’s a smart player in pass coverage. We sometimes rotate C.J. (Savage) and Denard (Spears) in there and they’re really good man-to-man coveage people. … I thought those guys performed really well the other night,” Smith said after Tuesday’s practice.
Senior Exavyer Jackson and freshman Taylor Hayes both missed the Weaver game recovering from injuries and returned to action with a vengeance against Lincoln. Hayes caused two fumbles and led the Bulldogs in total tackles with 11, including two Piedmont’s six quarterback sacks on the night and one additional tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Jackson had 10 tackles, three of those sacks, and caused a fumble. Tre Reese, also absent for the Weaver game, had eight tackles with two behind the line.
“All three of those guys play with a lot of intensity. It aggravated them to have to miss a game,” said Smith. “It didn’t really surprise us that they came back and performed at a high level because that’s kind of what we expect out of them.”
Neonta Alexander had 10 tackles, one a sack, and recovered a fumble. Jaret Prater made seven tackles. Ryan Kirk, Tyler Lucas and Darnell Jackson each had three tackles. Thompson, Daughtry, Blanchard, Lusk, Savage, Jacob Clark, Chase Keener and Dalton Barber had two tackles apiece and Colton Donaldson had one.
“We were able to get good pressure on the quarterback,” Smith said. “I think a couple of those interceptions he threw early trying to avoid a sack. I think a couple of the sacks we got were because we continued to pursue him and the secondary had them covered. (Pass rush and secondary coverage) just complimented each other well.”
The Bulldogs didn’t lack for offense against the Golden Bears. Ty Sparks was 9-for-13 passing for 110 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Lusk was 3-for-3 for 95 yards and two scores. Spears caught three passes for 81 yards. Savage had five receptions for 76 yards. Darnell Jackson’s three grabs gained 29 yards. Mitchell Bennefield had one reception for 12 yards and Prater one for five yards.
Piedmont rushed for 161 yards as a team on 38 carries. That total was spread among 14 runners. Sparks led with 47 net yards on five carries. Trevaughn Carpenter ran six times for 24 yards. Thompson had six rushes for 23 yards and Darnell Jackson five for 22 yards. Prater finished with three carries for 17 yards and Spears three for 14 yards.
Piedmont held Lincoln without a first down on the game’s opening possession. Following a punt, the Bulldogs drove 67 yards, aided by a roughing the passer penalty. Sparks passed to Savage from eight yards out for the score with 5:05 left in the first quarter. Easton Kirk, 6-for-6 on extra points, made it 7-0.
Thompson’s interception with 3:44 to play in the first quarter set Piedmont up at the Lincoln 14 and two runs by Darnell Jackson, the first for six yards and the second for eight, covered the distance in just less than a minute.
Spark’s pass intended for Thompson was intercepted at the Lincoln 1 on the first play of the second quarter. After the Bulldogs jumped offside, Lincoln tried to throw downfield but Daughtry made an acrobatic move for an interception at the Lincoln 22. Lusk came into the game at quarterback, rolled right then threw back to Savage in the left flat and Savage didn’t stop until he reached the Lincoln end zone.
Trailing 21-0, Lincoln got its best field position of the first half when the Bears’ defense held on downs at the Lincoln 45 with about four minutes left in the half. A 24-yard completion from Byrd to tight end Dontavious Johnson got the touchdown with 1:32 on the clock and the extra point by seventh-grader Nicholas Pope completed the first-half scoring.
Darnell Jackson started the second half with a 50-yard kickoff return to the Lincoln 43. Sparks ran for 29 yards on the first play and scored from three yards out on the fourth play of the march.
A fumble ended Lincoln’s most serious threat of the second half at the Piedmont 7. Eleven plays later, Prater scored on a 6-yard run with eight seconds left in the third quarter.
Piedmont’s final touchdown came on a short throw from Lusk to Spears that Spears turned into a 65-yard touchdown with 7:41 to play. The score was set up by Blanchard’s interception.