By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
PIEDMONT – Piedmont senior quarterback Jack Hayes has had numerous big games throughout his high school football career. Several of those have been in comeback efforts.
He had another one of those on Friday night against second-ranked Gordo in the first-ever meeting between the two schools.
Hayes shook off a tough first half by carrying the ball 30 times in the second half for 220 yards and four touchdowns. He finished the game with 255 yards on 40 carries with four scores in leading the third-ranked Bulldogs to a 27-14 victory in the Class 3A state quarterfinals.
The victory sends Piedmont (11-2) to the state semifinals for the eighth straight season. They’ll face a familiar foe at the Field of Champions this coming Friday in Region 6 opponent Sylvania.
Sylvania defeated Geraldine 27-7 in other semifinal action on Friday. Piedmont beat the Rams 40-7 back on Sept. 2 and defeated them in the first round of last year’s state playoffs 40-20.
Hayes, making his 58th career start on Friday night for the Bulldogs, said the Gordo game reminded him of the 2019 state title game against Mobile Christian, won by the Bulldogs 26-24 in Auburn.
“We were only down 10 in the championship game, and we came back out and took control of that game. It was a similar feeling,” Hayes said. “The line played awesome in the second half (on Friday night). Their defense knew we were running the ball. They knew we were coming right at them in the second half, but they couldn’t stop it.”
Hayes is now just a little over 100 yards away from becoming the state’s all-time passing yardage leader. He completed 10-of-20 pass attempts for 105 yards, but for the second straight week, he led his team to victory with his legs.
“We’ve tried to save him as much as we could throughout the year,” Piedmont coach Steve Smith said. The game was on the line. I ain’t the smartest person in the world, I can promise you that, but I’m smart enough to give it to Jack.
“Everybody in the stadium knew who was getting the football. It was just a matter of will. Could we go out there (in the second half) and impose our will? Our offensive line and all those guys who rotate in the backfield there were able to take over the second half, control the clock and have four long scoring drives. I was real proud of our guys.”
But before Hayes added more heroics to his resume, it was the Green Wave (11-2) that appeared primed to wash out the Bulldogs’ season.
Gordo’s defense forced three first-half turnovers – including two Hayes interceptions – and got a 61-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back CJ Lark late in the first quarter for a 7-0 halftime lead.
“Give Gordo credit for coming out here and having a great plan,” Smith said. “We turned it over three times in the first half, but they created those turnovers. They made some great plays. We were getting real frustrated there. We needed the halftime break to kind of go in and regroup. We just talked to everybody about if that was how we wanted to go out. That’s how we challenged them.”
The Bulldogs accepted that challenge.
Hayes directed a 12-play, 60-yard drive in which he had a hand in all but the first play. The drive ate up over 6 ½ minutes of the third-quarter clock, capped off by his 8-yard touchdown run. Sloan Smith’s extra point tied the game at 7.
“It was huge,” Hayes said of the opening drive of the third quarter. “I think honestly we played about as bad as we could in the first half, but we were still only down by seven. That was the positive point in the locker room, that we were only down by seven. Obviously it was big coming out. If we didn’t give up the big plays, I knew we could stop them and drive the ball and score.”
The Bulldog defense delivered a fourth-down stop on Gordo’s next possession. Seven Hayes runs later, Piedmont captured its first lead of the game. This time he scored on a 3-yard run to put Piedmont in front 14-7 at the end of the third quarter.
But Gordo responded on Lark’s 84-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 14 heading into the fourth quarter.
Lark led the Green Wave with 153 yards on nine carries and two touchdowns.
The Bulldogs battled back with Hayes scoring his third touchdown of the game on a 2-yard run. With 8:37 to go in the game, Piedmont was back out in front 21-14.
Piedmont’s defense stopped Gordo again thanks to a 13-yard third-down sack by Brody Epps of quarterback Brax Garrison. The Green Wave was forced to punt, and Hayes made them pay again. This time he ran for his longest touchdown of the night – a 36-yard score. Gordo blocked the extra point, keeping the score at 27-14 with 5:22 remaining.
The Bulldog defense forced another fourth-down stop, giving the offense the ball back with 4:31 to go. Hayes again led Piedmont down the field, only this time he just ran out the clock to send the Bulldogs back to the semifinals once again versus a region opponent.
“We’ve played a rematch from our region I think five times since 2016 in the semifinals. It never surprises me to play someone from our region,” Coach Smith said. “Sylvania is nowhere near the team they were back then (earlier in the season). We understand it’s one game next Friday night for all the marbles to go to the state championship. Really, anything in the past doesn’t matter.”