Cornerback Darnell Jackson recovered a fumble at the Cherokee County 47-yard line to set up Piedmont’s first score. Neonta Alexander forced a fumble that Exavyer Jackson picked off in mid-air at the Warrior 35, leading to Piedmont’s third touchdown and a 21-7 advantage.
On the first play of the second quarter, the snap sailed over the head of Cherokee County punter Tanner Johnson, handing Piedmont the ball at the Warrior 22. Linebacker Jacob Clark fell on a loose ball for Piedmont’s third fumble recovery on the ensuing Warrior possession.
“I thought the turnovers were critical,” said Piedmont head coach Steve Smith. “It let us get a two-score lead on them and kind of got them away from the ball-control (offense). That was what I was probably most worried about, them wearing us down, laying on us with those big offensive linemen and us not being able to get off the field. I thought our defense did a heck of a job.”
Exavyer Jackson, a senior and the only experienced player returning from last year’s defensive line, said hard work in practice has made this year’s defensive front, and this year’s defense, a cohesive unit.
“Coach Smith just stays on us more than he ever has,” Jackson said. “I didn’t think he could get this serious. We’ve taken practice to another level this year.
“Out of all four years that I’ve played high school football, this is probably the team that plays together the most. It’s like we have a bond. We play really good together.”
Cherokee County chose the ball to start the game but, after picking up a quick first down, fumbled. Denard Spears started the 47-yard drive with a 9-yard wide receiver sweep and ended it with a 2-yard run from the opposite side. The first of six consecutive extra points by freshman Easton Kirk made it 7-0 Piedmont with 7:35 to go in the first quarter.
A 76-yard scoring pass from quarterback J.T. Hill to wide out Marquese Walker answered immediately for the Warriors, and Erik Burgess tied the game with his kick but the final six minutes of the first quarter and all the second belonged to Piedmont.
The Bulldogs needed less than two minutes to take the lead for good, covering 66 yards in five plays. A 40-yard pickup on a pass from quarterback Ty Sparks to C.J. Savage started the drive and Exavyer Jackson plowed over the goal line from a yard out for the score. Two minutes later, Darnell Jackson’s 10-yard run made it 21-7 at 2:26 of the first.
After the bad snap, quarterback Tyler Lusk and Savage needed just one snap to combine on a 22-yard scoring pass. Piedmont got another short field, this time 20 yards out, on Clark’s recovery and a Cherokee County penalty. Sparks made it hurt with a 15-yard scoring aerial to Spears.
Junior Dreek Thompson tallied Piedmont’s sixth touchdown of the first half on a 10-yard run with 5:37 to play before intermission. On the Bulldogs’ seventh possession, the only time they had the ball and didn’t score, they exhausted the final three minutes of the half on six consecutive running plays.
When the first half closed, 10 players had carried the ball for the Bulldogs and combined for 174 yards rushing. With Piedmont rotating skill position players between offense and defense, no single running back or receiver gets many opportunities. Thompson, running inside and outside, had 59 yards on eight first-half tries to lead Piedmont’s blitz.
“We work hard during practice, play as a team and we give everybody credit,” he said of the team’s chemistry.
Thompson got three more carries on the first series of the second half and ended with 62 yards on the night. On the second Piedmont possession after halftime, Darnell Jackson showed his speed with an 85-yard touchdown run. A 34-yard run by sophomore Trevaughn Carpenter made it 54-7 with two minutes left in the third.
Speedy Ty Green got Cherokee County’s second touchdown with a 40-yard scamper on the second play of the fourth quarter.
Jackson’s 29-yard field goal with 3:10 to go completed the scoring.
Piedmont and Cherokee County open region play next week. Piedmont takes on Ashville in Class 3A and the Class 4A Warriors meet Alexandria.