By Jason Eisenberg
You’re going to want to grab a seat for this one — last Friday the No. 2 seeded Piedmont football team hosted No. 7 McKinleyville in an offensive spectacle not seen before during this season.
For the first time this year, the Highlanders allowed over 24 points and had to stay ahead of a see-saw battle between McKinleyville’s stud junior quarterback Kyle Spalding (37 of 41 for 370 yards and a TD) and the monster running game from Piedmont that resulted in 497 rushing yards. When all the dust settled, Piedmont prevailed 55-43, pushing its undefeated record to 12-0 and setting the PHS record for most wins in a single season.
“I told the guys it’s not very often you get lightning in a bottle in life and they’ve got something special going,” said Scott Coats in his second year as head coach. “A championship team must excel in all three phases of the game and though our defense had some trouble with their very talented quarterback, we were able to hold them where it counted. We’re here and we want to just keep the ball rolling.”
It’s safe to say that the Highlanders came to Witter Field with the running game in mind. Coats, his staff and the players were prepared for a battle in the trenches, which ultimately turned into multiple drives solely in the Muscle Package. Junior running back Gabe Watson had a career day on the field, rushing for 297 yards (long 54) and six touchdowns while senior running back Connor Garrett ran for 177 yards (long 53) and a score.
“I’ve said before we like to take what the opponent gives us, but I wanted to run it tonight and our guys were up to the challenge,” said Coats. “Going against a team that scores like that, you want to keep them off the field and running the ball is the best way to do that.”
The Highlanders raced out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, but the safety cushion wasn’t enough to ease the anxiety of Highlander fans as the Panthers battled back to get within one touchdown mid-game.
The Highlanders scored on its opening drive and quarterback Cole Gruendl found McKinleyville’s secondary sleeping as he faked a handoff and found Joey Moyer for a 42-yard reception down the right sideline. With only nine yards to go, Garrett rushed for 4 yards and then Watson followed his younger brother who was lead blocking for a 5-yard touchdown. After Andrew Strauch’s kick PHS led 7-0. After a three and out for the Panthers Piedmont responded with a three-play scoring drive – a quick run for a loss, then an inside pass from Gruendl to Andrew Meredith who picked up 40 yards on a gritty run down the middle. At the 22-yard line, Watson took the ball on a sweep to the left, picked up wide receiver Frank Kossack’s block on the outside and zoomed into the end zone to make it 14-0.
McKinleyville responded with a strong drive downfield but fumbled the ball on Piedmont’s one-yard line, recovered by linebacker Nick Pacult. With 99 yards to go, Piedmont scored on five carries. Garrett broke free for a 53-yard gain and Watson finished the drive with a 14-yard rushing touchdown out of the Muscle Package. The Panthers’ offense looked strong after falling behind 21-0 and grinded its way down the field with short passes and QB keepers to end the first quarter.
McKinleyville then opened up the second quarter with a touchdown run, but linebacker Fiachra Collins blocked the extra point, making the score 21-6. McKinleyville scored again on its next series by moving the ball down field in the same fashion – short passes and 5+ yard runs. Their running back, Bailey Turner, ran the ball in for a one-yard TD run. The Highlanders denied the Panthers’ two-point conversion to leave the score 21-12 as Collins sacked the QB.
Piedmont answered with a three-play scoring drive as Watson ran the ball 30 yards first and than Garrett added an 8-yard rush. Following guard Connor Addiego, Watson punched in his fourth TD of the game on a 15-yard carry.
With time waning in the first half McKinleyville efficiently moved the ball into Piedmont territory and scored on a short pass. This time they converted the two points, getting within one touchdown, 28-20, with 34 seconds left on the clock.
After a nice kickoff return from Meredith, Watson took the handoff and followed blocks from Addiego, Kossack and Hunter Abel. He then made a great cut midfield to find open space, eventually scoring a 54-yard touchdown with only 14 seconds elapsed. On defense Abel sacked the quarterback to close the half 35-20, Piedmont.
McKinleyville didn’t hold back, however, and scored on its opening drive of the second half as well as converting two points to quickly make it 35-28. Watson responded again with a huge run and scored on a 44-yard rush – Strauch’s kick was no good and Piedmont led 41-28. It took three minutes for McKinleyville to return the favor and converted another two points to crawl back 41-36, despite a QB sack from linebacker Joe Cumbelich.
The Highlanders held a slim, 5-point lead to start the final quarter but eight running plays kept the clock moving until Garrett saw daylight behind center Jakob Armstrong for an 8-yard rushing score. The Panthers returned the favor in just four plays, capped by a 23-yard run from quarterback Spalding. It was still a close one with Piedmont up 48-43.
Piedmont’s next series really ate up the clock with 11 running plays. The effort the O-line put in made the difference with Addiego, Armstrong, Abel, Matt Burge and Matt Lichens deserving a lot of credit for the run game. The drive was capped with a 5-yard touchdown from Fiachra Collins right up the gut – Cumbelich and Burge drove back their defenders all the way into the end zone to make space for Collins. The Highlanders now led 55-43 with only two minutes left to go.
Despite an inspired drive from McKinleyville, the Highlanders kept the visitors out of the end zone and Cumbelich tallied his second sack of the night. The game ended with the Panthers inside Piedmont’s five-yard line.
“We knew we were going run the ball tonight so we put our heads down and worked at it,” said Cumbelich who had two QB sacks. “We have to fix a few things on defense but we have the week off so we’re going to take this opportunity to focus and heal up for Friday.”
Piedmont’s defense was led with 20 tackles from Pacult, 13 tackles from William Bird, 11 tackles and a sack from Abel and eight tackles from Jacob Watson.