‘OH BOY ... IT’S GONNA HAPPEN!’ – Longtime Bears’ announcer John DuPont
Sixth-ranked Pierce County will make its first-ever state championship game appearance after knocking off bullish Crisp County 25-13 in the Class AAA semifinals.
“That’s the best finish I’ve ever been a part of in 24 years (coaching),” said head coach Ryan Herring, whose team won its eighth straight since its lone loss at Fitzgerald, which is undefeated and playing for the AA title. “Best I’ve ever seen.”
The Bears (12-1), winners of eight consecutive games, looked the visitors in the eye and didn’t blink nor back down going toe-to-toe with the fourth-ranked Cougars (11-2), who have earned a reputation for extra curricular activities.
“We had film from every game and they had personal fouls and unsportsmanlike penalties every game from the start of the season until the end,” Herring said. “I knew if we had the officiating, they’d get flags all night because that’s who they are and how they play — trash-talking and hitting after the whistle.
“We told the kids if you’re gonna let it affect you and get involved with it, we’re probably not going to win. If you can just keep your calm and poise, it’s going to cost them.”
Pierce County will face second-ranked and unbeaten Region 8 champion Oconee County Wednesday, December 30 at noon in Atlanta.
PCHS mostly stayed away from the antics Crisp County has used all season to intimidate foes after plays ended. Officials flagged the undisciplined Cougars 17 times for 185 yards with as many as seven being personal fouls.
It was two late defensive scores by PCHS in a span of 23 seconds that turned a 13-12 deficit near the two-minute mark into a two-score victory over a team that had not allowed more than 14 points in a game all season.
“I’d call that a miracle ... I don’t know what you think,” said Herring, “There was some divine intervention there. How it ended couldn’t have happened to a more deserving team.”
After Herring used the second of three timeouts with 2:01 to play, the Cougars were facing 2nd-and-eight at the PCHS 29. Crisp County head coach had turned the offense over to A.J. Lofton to run out the last 4:47 from the “wildcat’ formation and protect the one-point advantage.
On his sixth consecutive carry in the possession, Lofton was hit by Ty Little causing a fumble. An alert Austin Jernigan picked up the ball and raced down the sideline in front of the Cougars’ bench for the 69-yard go-ahead touchdown with 1:45 to play for an improbable 18-13 lead.
PCHS missed on the two-point conversion when quarterback Jermaine Brewton’s jump pass fell incomplete as the Crisp County faithful started filing out of the stadium in waves.
Pierce County added an insurance touchdown three plays after the kickoff with John Manghir doing the honors with a strip sack of Cougars’ quarterback Ahmad Brown, who was flushed from the pocket. The loose ball was recovered in the end zone by D.J. Bell with 1:22 remaining.
Robert Jacobs tacked on the PAT just before holder Luke Bennett was blindsided by a vicious hit. That penalty, along with another unsportsmanlike flag, allowed the Bears to kick the ball from the Crisp County 30.
A sack by Seth Foster, an incomplete pass and a four-yard run finished off the game.
Unfortunately, it didn’t finish the night as both Crisp County players and coaches tried to rip down senior banners hanging from the fence at the west end of the field. PCHS administrators and law enforcement officers from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and Blackshear Police Department raced to the ugly scene.
With two of the top defensive teams in AAA, neither offense found much consistent success. The Panthers had 190 total yards, 158 rushing with 141 of that coming from Lofton. However, they suffered nine plays of zero or negative yards, including four sacks for minus-34 yards.
Pierce County managed 186 yards with quarterback Jermaine Brewton accounting for 67 passing and 55 rushing, including a one-yard touchdown. Bell had 64 yards on 12 carries for the rest of the Bears’ yards. Kicker Robert Jacobs had a 32-yard field goal and two conversion kicks for Pierce County’s other points.
After an exchange of punts to start the game, Crisp County took the lead on its second possession on a five-yard run by two-team all-state linebacker turned short-yardage running back Christopher Paul Jr., with 7:03 left in the first quarter. His dash up the middle out of the “wildcat” formation capped an 85-yard, five-play drive that began with a 41-yard run by Marquise Palmer followed by a 35-yarder from Lofton.
Pierce County responded with its longest drive of the night, going 69 yards in 12 plays with Brewton scoring on a third-and-goal play with 20.5 seconds left in the first period tying the score at 7-all. The march was aided when Brewton drew the Panthers offside with a hard snap count on a fourth-and-1 play at the Crisp County 45.
The first big mistake of the night came on the ensuing series when the Cougars’ center snapped the ball well over the head of punter David Mitchell from the 22-yard line. The snap landed just into the end zone, and with Mitchell slipping while trying to recover, the ball skidded just over the back line for a safety before any Bear could recover it for a touchdown as PCHS took a 9-7 lead with 10:34 left in the half.
After stopping Pierce County following the second half kickoff, the Cougars took the lead with a 10-play, 73-yard drive. Paul again finished it with a dive from a yard out, but his run to the pylon for the two-point conversion was stopped short with 5:38 showing on the third quarter clock. The PAT gave Crisp County a 13-9 advantage.
The Bears had the biggest of their 11 penalties to aid the drive, getting flagged for taunting Brown after sacking the quarterback out of bounds for a six-yard loss on a third-and-6 play from his own 31.
“They don’t get that last touchdown if we don’t make a stupid penalty,” Herring said. “We pulled them back in the game. That’s the stuff that can get you beat. It almost got us. We’re not quite as smart as we need to be.”
The Bears drew within a point at 13-12 when Jacobs connected on his field goal to cap a 10-play, 67-yard possession with 11:08 left in the game. The drive was aided by a personal foul penalty on a first-and-10 play where Bell lost a yard.
The teams then exchanged punts with Crisp County gaining possession at its 40 with 4:47 left and the Bears holding all their timeouts. It was no secret what the Cougars were going to do with Lofton alone in the backfield,
“We had faith we could get the stop and get the ball back to the offense,” Jernigan said. “We knew they were going to just run. We played them hard, never gave up, created the fumble and got lucky getting it.”
Coaches like to say luck is where execution meets opportunity. Jernigan is the Bears’ “Mr. Opportunity.”
“We’ve seen him do it in other games,” Herring said of his defensive leader. “He’s always there. He’s a football player who can do anything and tonight he did.”
Jernigan showed his running skill after picking up the ball. He eluded a couple of tacklers early in the run, cut inside of another a few yards later, then got the final block to get him home.
“I saw the guy with a good angle and just as he got close, I cut back in front of him and then got (a block) and it was all green grass,” he said.
Herring was still trying to process the comeback and its result 45 minutes afterwards amid one set of congratulations following another from fans.
“Surreal is used a lot at times like this, but I can’t describe it any better than that,” he said. “I can’t think about a state championship game in this moment. I can’t even think ahead.
“I’m just so happy for these boys because they put up with me six days a week. All the credit goes to them and to God we were able to do this.”