By Al Muskewitz, East Alabama Sports Today
PIEDMONT – Jack Hayes set another all-time state passing record on the last play of the first quarter, then he set out to carry Piedmont to another state championship game.
In an impressive display of efficiency, the Piedmont quarterback led his offense to touchdowns on each of their first eight possessions — accounting for seven of them himself — leading them to a 55-22 victory over Sylvania in the Class 3A semifinals at the Field of Champions Friday.
The Bulldogs (12-2) will play St James (12-2) Thursday at 11 a.m. in Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium for the title.
It’s their sixth trip to the finals since 2015 and seventh under coach Steve Smith. They have won it five times, including two of the last three years.
“Best feeling in the world when you’re talking about high school football,” Smith said. “That’s the goal everybody has at the beginning of the year. We didn’t start out too good losing that opener, but I thought our guys really played hard each and every week, we got better and better, and found some good chemistry there on both sides of the ball. I can’t enough about their effort tonight. I thought we played a really, really clean game on the offensive side.”
Hayes threw for four touchdowns and ran for three more. His touchdown passes covered 9, 18 and 30 yards to Ish Bethel and a 54-yarder to Rollie Pinto, and he had TD runs of 6, 1 and 11 yards. Parker Thornton scored the other touchdown on a 10-yard run late in the second quarter to give the Bulldogs a 41-16 halftime lead
Hayes was 10-of-11 passing for 224 yards and three touchdowns in the first half — a 351.96 NCAA-style passer rating — and 12-of-16 for 259 in the game. He rushed for 112 yards.
“Our offense played lights out,” Hayes said. “Every game I try to be perfect and I just happened to be on point this game.
“I’ve been off a little bit the past two games, so that’s why we’ve been running the ball a good bit, we hadn’t really connected in the passing game so I just focused really this week on getting back on point.”
After the game Smith publicly handed Hayes the game ball at midfield, only the second time he’s done that in his coaching career and the first time he’s done that in 17 years at Piedmont.
Hayes called it a “big deal” to get it in front of all his friends and the community.
Things were going Piedmont’s way all night — you might say Sylvania’s fate was sealed when it settled for a field goal on their opening drive — but it was really proven by Bethel’s last touchdown.
It was a fourth-and-long from a distance too close to punt and too far for a field goal. They told Hayes just to put up. He threw it into a crowd. Sylvania’s Josh Scott, a sure-handed receiver on offense, looked like he was going to make an interception, but the ball bounced off him and Bethel was right there to collect the rebound and race across the field into the end zone.
“That was crazy,” Bethel said. “I saw it. They tipped it. I just grabbed it, honestly.”
“Sometimes it’s just your night,” Smith said. “I felt good about it all week. We had a great week of preparation, the kids were really upbeat, practice was great this week. A lot of times you worry about that when you’re not in school, but practice was great all week. Lot of energy this week. Things went our way tonight.”
Hayes set the state’s all-time passing record with a 43-yard non-touchdown pass on the last play of the first quarter. He already owns all-time state records for touchdown passes (now 158), touchdowns accounted for (219) and total offense (14,816 yards). About the only one left within reach is the all-time completions record (753) and at 716 (currently second) he has a chance if the Bulldogs air it out in the state finals.
“The thing Jack Hayes is most proud of is the number of playoff games and victories that we’ve had the way he’s been able to lead his team now to a third state championship appearance in his four years as starting quarterback,” Smith said. “He’ll be the first one to tell you the records are nice, but he’d trade all them next Thursday for another championship, for sure.
“I told our guys we’ve played with somebody that’s broken some records of some pretty prolific people who have played in this state, a lot of great quarterbacks who have played in this state, and for him to be able to be on top of those record boards it’s a team thing, it’s a collective effort. It’s the product of playing a lot of games, too.”
The teams went score for score on each of their first two possessions, but it all turned late in the first quarter when the Rams (10-4) tried to go for it on fourth down from midfield and failed. They learned the danger of giving Hayes a short field.
Hayes set the passing yardage record on the first play, getting the Bulldogs inside the 10 on the final play of the quarter. Three plays later, Hayes was scoring from 6 yards out. Things got worse for the Rams when they fumbled the ensuing kickoff. Three plays later, Hayes blasted in from the 1.
“Seven’s really good, man,” Sylvania coach Tyler Vann said. “Even when you get to him, he’s going to make you miss a lot of times. He knows where to go with the football. His arm strength is really good. Any college that doesn’t give him an offer, that’s ridiculous.
“He’s a winner, man. I enjoy watching him play. I don’t like watching him play when I’m on the sideline across from him. Jack Hayes is a winner and any college would be stupid not to give him an opportunity.”