Thursday night, the high-flying New Orleans Saints came out flat and were upended by a team wearing blue and silver (Dallas Cowboys).
Friday night in one Class AAA semifinal, the high-flying Cedar Grove Saints faced a team wearing blue and silver as well – undefeated Pierce County. But there would be no let down by the squad from Ellenwood.
Cedar Grove (13-1) flexed its superior speed and athleticism throughout and took a 30-6 win over the Bears (13-1) at Buck Godfrey Stadium, to advance to the state finals for the second time in four years.
The Saints will face Peach County in the championship game, December 11, at 1 p.m., in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Trojans traveled north to Calhoun and knocked off the previously unbeaten Yellow Jackets, 22-7, in the other Class AAA semifinal.
Unlike the Saints of the NFL, Cedar Grove head coach Jimmy Smith wasn’t worried about a let down by his team. In fact, he was concerned about the opposite. After winning the state title in 2016, the Saints were eager to make up for last year’s loss to Calhoun in the semifinals.
“We made some mistakes. We could have played better,” Smith said. “I think it came from us being a little too hyped. But we settled down. Our coaches did a great job with the game plan and our guys executed.”
Cedar Grove seized control early on the strength of a 78-yard touchdown run by Robert “Pop” Jones on the Saints’ first play from scrimmage, and a 60-yard touchdown return by Rashad Jordan off of a free kick after a safety. A 4-yard keeper by Pierce County sophomore quarterback Jermaine Brewton, and a failed point-after attempt by the Bears made the score 16-6 midway through the second quarter.
The Bears’ secondary made it abundantly clear it was not going to let all-state receiver Jadon Haselwood beat them by devoting a cornerback and a safety directly over him. The Saints took full advantage of that alignment on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Kendall Boney to Jordan on a deep crossing route, to push the lead to 23-6.
But the Bears, who also have one of the most productive offenses in Class AAA, wouldn’t submit. Late in the quarter they moved the ball to the Saints’ 30-yard line, mostly on the legs of senior running back John Jones, the Region 2AAA player of the year. But the Cedar Grove defense brought an end to the drive when senior receiver Parker Piegler was hit as soon as he caught a pass over the middle from Brewton. The ball careened right into the arms of Rashad Dubenion, and the Saints took their 23-6 lead into halftime.
Pierce County stayed scrappy in the second half but could never sustain anything offensively, as the Saints’ defense swarmed all night. As their front four ate up Bear blockers, the Saints’ linebacker corps – led by senior William Jenkins and juniors Alvin Williams and Isaiah Ratcliff – made several tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Cedar Grove put the game away for good when Jones, who ran for over 200 yards in the game, raced 77 yards for a touchdown – darting up the middle and then outrunning the Pierce County secondary to the end zone.
As was the case all night, Cedar Grove was just too fast – on both sides of the ball – for Pierce County.
“You just have to tip your cap to them,” Bears’ head coach Jason Strickland said. “You can talk about their speed and athleticism all you want. But I’ll tell you what, [Smith and his staff] coach the heck out of that team. When you have athletes like that and you add great coaching like they have, you get a team that is just a very tough out.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com