“I think the fact that they’re 3-0 and undefeated in region play is going to speak volumes to our kids,” predicted Piedmont coach Steve Smith. “We’ve been telling them all week that there are three team in this region that are undefeated right now and at the top – that’s us, Cleveland and Saks. After Friday night, there will just be two undefeated team and we want to be one of those.”
The 3-0 start has created a renewed interest in football at Cleveland and the Panthers should bring a supportive crowd with them to Piedmont.
“Everybody over here is excited right now,” Gilliland said. “They’re proud of what we’ve done so far. There’s been a little bit of buzz around here. Everybody’s excited about football right now.”
Gilliland’s offense is a spread. He said to this point the Panthers have run the ball about 60 percent of the time.
“It really kind of depends on what we’re getting defensively,” he said. “If people try to load the box on us we’re going to try to throw it around. If we get matchups that we like in the running game, we’re going to run it.”
Gilliland’s starting quarterback has been his son Peyton but the 6-foot, 190-pound sophomore is questionable for the Piedmont game with injuries to both quads according to his father. If the younger Gilliland is unable to play, look for senior Matt Pelt under center.
“It changes us a little bit offensively but for the most part we’ve got to do what we do,” the elder Gilliland said.
Piedmont’s Smith described Cleveland’s offense as looking like the one-back sets the Bulldogs saw from Glencoe last week with a greater variety of plays – much like Piedmont’s attack. Around Gilliland at quarterback the Panthers have senior Trevor Yates, a wingback in last year’s attack, at running back. Senior Emanuel Terry, a 6-foot-6, 200-pound wide receiver will present matchup problems for the Bulldogs.
Smith said Peyton Gilliland played in the second half of last week’s 29-0 win over Ashville but did not run the ball. He will not be upset if Gilliland remains on the sideline Friday night.
“He’s good. I’m talking about one of the four or five best players in this region. He’s legit,” said Smith. “It definitely makes them a lesser football team if he doesn’t play.”
How do the Bulldogs remain undefeated?
“We’ve got to contain the big play on defense. Obviously, they’ve got some big-play capability there. They’ve got a big receiver who’s about 6-6. They throw the fade to him a good bit. They’ve got a good quarterback and good running back that we’ve got to be able to contain and tackle to the ground,” Smith noted. “They get after it really well on the offensive and defensive fronts. If we don’t match their intensity on the offensive and defensive fronts, it could be a long night. Offensively, we’ve got to put some drives together and not get used to striking with the big play. We had a couple of turnovers last week at Glencoe which is something we can’t have.”
At Glencoe last Friday, Piedmont’s balanced offense totaled almost 600 yards as the Bulldogs won 41-7. Thirty-one rushing plays produced 310 yards. A dozen completed passes added another 282 yards.
“I didn’t think that we played our best game of the year but I did think that we did a lot of things well and that allowed us to come out with a victory,” Smith said.
Then he noted, “I think most of these kids remember those tough battles that we’ve had with Glencoe and they definitely understood Glencoe was a team that could beat us is we didn’t play well.”
Piedmont started the scoring on its second possession. Quarterback Ty Sparks hit C.J. Savage on a fly pattern down the Glencoe sideline for 63 yards and a touchdown. The kick missed and Piedmont led 6-0 with almost seven minutes remaining in the first quarter. Following an exchange of punts, an interception by Darnell Jackson gave Piedmont the ball at the Glencoe 31-yard line with 27 seconds to go in the initial period. Seven plays later, Sparks scrambled and found Jackson along the Piedmont sideline for 27-yards and the first of Exavyer Jackson’s 3-for-3 night on extra points made it 13-0 Piedmont.
The Yellow Jackets responded with a 65-yard scoring run at left end by quarterback Dylan Stone, cutting Piedmont’s advantage to 13-7 with 9:04 to play in the half. Sparks ended the first half scoring with a 51-yard run to cap a five-play drive. A run on a 2-point conversion attempt was stopped short of the goal line.
The Bulldogs got the second half kickoff and needed just one play to extend their lead. Sparks threw short to Savage who avoided two Glencoe tacklers then outran another to the end zone for a 53-yard score. Dreek Thompson ran for two more points and Piedmont led 27-7 with 11:47 to go in the third quarter.
Piedmont lost the ball on downs at the Glencoe 23 then got it back when a jarring tackle by Tyler Lusk caused a fumble and Dalton Barber recovered at the Piedmont 28. After the teams traded punts, Piedmont took over at the Piedmont 23 and Darnell Jackson took a speed sweep around right end for 77 yards and a score. The kick made it 34-7 with 1:21 to go in the third. Thompson’s 40-yard run through the middle on the first play of the fourth quarter ended Piedmont’s touchdown parade.
After the game, Smith credited assistants Oscar Bonds, Mark Mitchell, Patrick Walker and Everett Kelley with the halftime adjustments that broke big plays in the second half.
“We blocked our counter a little bit differently because the backside linebacker was knifing through and killing us in the first half. They also suggested we run that little hitch off the speed sweep look because every time Denard (Spears) had come in motion off the speed sweep the outside backer had flown up to take it on in the backfield. It put C.J. in a one-on-one situation out there with a guy that was playing corner for the first time this year,” Smith said.
Official Piedmont stats showed Darnell Jackson with seven carries for 128 yards rushing. Sparks ran four times for 69 yards. Thompson had six carries for 68 yards. Lusk netted 14 yards on two attempts and Jaret Prater finished with 12 yards on five tries.
Sparks was 8-for-15 passing for 208 yards. Lusk went 4-for-8 for 74 yards.
Savaged totaled four receptions for 170 yards. Spears caught five passes for 59 yards. Darnell Jackson had one catch for 27 yards, Cody Daughtry one for 23 and Tre Reese one for three yards.
Two turnovers and 100 yards in penalties, “signs of sloppy ball”, were the negatives in the game from Smith’s perspective.
The defensive unit continued to show improvement against Glencoe. Other than Stone’s run, Glencoe netted 35 yards on the ground in the first half. The Yellow Jackets ran the ball 15 times in the second half and netted four yards.
“Just getting reps as a team is the biggest thing for the defense,” said Smith. “They enjoy playing defense. They run to the ball well. We’ve got to overcome a few assignment errors.”
“I think our defensive lineman have progressed nicely. I’ve been real pleased in particular with Ryan Kirk’s play on the nose. We knew that we could give people some problems with (Exavyer Jackson) and Tre (Reese) with their quickness off the edges but in what we do you’ve got to have that guy that can control ‘A’ gaps in the middle and Ryan Kirk’s done a really good job stepping into that role.
Inside linebackers Taylor Hayes and Neonta Alexander led in tackles against Glencoe. Hayes, a freshman, had 15 tackles including one quarterback sack. Sophomore Alexander made 11 tackles with two sacks. Exavyer Jackson’s 10 tackles included one sack and three other stops behind the line.
At safety, Lusk made eight tackles, one for negative yards, and broke up a pass. Reese had six tackles including a sack and another for loss. Kirk and Thompson had five tackles apiece. Thompson broke up one pass as did Bayley Blanchard. Prater had four tackles. Barber and Darnell Jackson each had three tackles.