PIEDMONT – No matter the deficit, no matter the situation, the Piedmont Bulldogs never feel they’re out of a football game. Head coach Steve Smith says that’s just the way they’re wired, that they’re never going to roll over and die.
Class 4A, No. 5 Anniston was the latest team to find out just how tough it is to put them away at the Field of Champions Thursday night.
After building a 23-point fourth-quarter lead, Anniston almost saw it all totally evaporate with a furious Piedmont rally, but they escaped with a 30-28 victory to improve to 6-0.
The contest was eerily reminiscent of Piedmont’s improbable 35-33 victory over Montgomery Academy last December to win its fifth football championship and fourth title in seven years. The Bulldogs were also down in that game by 23 points in the second half.
Only this time, the winning result came up a little short for Class 3A, No. 1 Piedmont (3-2).
“I’m very proud of our guys,” Smith said. “Everybody that was here tonight saw what I know these guys are made of. We turned it over a couple of times and they made us pay for it. They stretched out a big lead on us. That’s what good teams do. That fourth quarter, that furious rally you saw there, is exactly what I would’ve expected coming out of the people from our locker room. I love those guys to death. They’re going to play to the final whistle.”
“The fact we had a big lead and they came back, it (says) a couple of things,” Anniston coach Rico White said. “One, we’ve never been in this position, especially against a top No. 1 team, so we kind of relaxed but you can’t.
“I told them they’re not going to quit. They’re champions, that’s what they do. I told them at halftime we needed 30 more points. You can’t rest of that team, especially with a quarterback like that.”
Hayes, who helped author the near-comeback on Thursday night, set the all-time state record for touchdown passes with the first of his three in the fourth quarter. He threw four touchdown passes in the game and extended the all-time record for touchdown responsibility he set a week ago in a win at Ohatchee. He now has 137 career touchdown passes.
For the game, Hayes completed 15-of-35 pass attempts for 232 yards, with 195 yards and three touchdowns coming in the second half. He also ran for 47 yards on 16 carries.
“We’re definitely very proud of him for all the things he’s done for our program, but I think he’d tell you tonight he’d trade that record for three more points there at the end,” Smith said of Hayes.
Piedmont made it a 2-point game with 3:49 remaining, following a Hayes-to-Thomas Propst 15-yard touchdown pass. Hayes then connected with Rollie Pinto on the 2-point conversion to make it 30-28.
Piedmont’s defense got a stop on the next Anniston series, forcing the visitors to punt, but Hayes was intercepted by Anniston’s Jaden Dobbins, who returned it to the Piedmont 41-yard line with 1:38 remaining.
Piedmont’s defense come up big again on the next series, forcing another Anniston punt which traveled into the end zone, giving the home team new life with 26 seconds remaining.
Piedmont managed to move inside Anniston’s 40 on a pair of Hayes pass completions – both for 20 yards – but time expired on his final completion of the game to Max Hanson, who lateraled to Propst, who then lateraled to Parker Thornton.
Hayes put Piedmont on top 7-0 with 4:52 remaining in the first quarter on a 21-yard touchdown toss to Ishmael Bethel. Sloan Smith provided the extra point.
Piedmont drove deep inside Anniston territory early in the second quarter, but the visitors forced a field 34-yard Sloan Smith goal attempt. He connected on the kick, but an illegal motion penalty against Piedmont took the points off the board, backing the Bulldogs up five yards.
Sloan Smith’s second attempt fell short, which gave Anniston the ball back.
Anniston managed to put its first scoring drive together as quarterback Kam Sandlin connected with Louis Lunsford on a 14-yard touchdown pass. The point after was no good, which kept Piedmont in front 7-6 with 5:42 to go in the first half.
On Piedmont’s first play of its ensuing drive, Hayes was intercepted near midfield by Dobbins. The visiting Bulldogs capitalized on the turnover, as Sandlin capped an 8-play drive with his second touchdown pass of the game. This one went to Jaylon Cunningham for 23 yards. Malachi Taylor ran in for the 2-point conversion to give Anniston a 14-7 halftime lead.
“Like good teams do, they made plays,” Coach Smith said. “They wound up taking it down and scoring (following the missed kick). I got a little greedy on the next series. I wish I could take that first play call back. We got a good kick return after they made it 7-6. We got it out to about the 40 and I called a little boot pass to the short side of the field. It just wasn’t a good call on my part. Their kid made a play on it.”
Dobbins came up big early in the third quarter. He recovered a Hayes fumble near midfield. Two plays later, Taylor scored on a 42-yard run. He added the 2-point conversion to give Anniston a 22-7 edge.
Following a Piedmont punt, Sandlin accounted for another Anniston touchdown – this one on the ground. He ran in from 14 yards. Taylor tossed the ball back to Sandlin on the successful 2-point run, stretching Anniston’s lead to 30-7 with 4:28 remaining in the third quarter.
That set the stage for Hayes and the home team’s near-comeback. He connected with Pinto on a 20-yard score at the 8:54 mark of the fourth. Then, after Cody Holloway recovered an Anniston fumble near midfield, Hayes hooked up with Bethel on a 31-yard touchdown pass. Sloan Smith’s extra point made it a 30-20 game.
Following an Anniston punt, Hayes struck again on 15-yard score to Thomas Propst, then hit Pinto on the 2-point pass to trim the deficit to two.
“To give yourself a chance to win the football game I think says volumes about our players, coaches and everybody not giving up,” Coach Smith said. “There are no moral victories at Piedmont. We lost the game tonight. We lost to the team that deserved to win the game. We’ll get better from it.”
Bethel caught three passes for 67 yards and two touchdowns. Pinto also had three catches for 65 yards and a score. Propst had five catches for 32 yards and a touchdown.
Sandlin, a South Carolina commitment as a defensive back, completed 12-of-19 pass attempts for 156 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 69 yards on 13 carries with a score.
Cunningham caught eight passes for 89 yards and a touchdown. Taylor ran for 88 yards on 17 carries with a touchdown.
The game marked the first football meeting between Piedmont and Anniston since 1948. Anniston has won all five meetings.