Pierce County suffered its first regular season loss nearly four weeks shy of three years when the sixth-ranked Bears fell 27-17 to Class AA second-ranked Fitzgerald.
PCHS last tasted a defeat in the regular season finale of 2017 when the Bears fell 41-14. The date was November 3.
Since then, Pierce County won a school-record 24 consecutive regular season games and 28-of-30 over two-plus seasons.
The Hurricane (5-0), though, showed why they were a consensus pick to win a state title battling back from 10-point first quarter deficit and a seven-point halftime deficit.
Fitzgerald loaded the box to contain the run-focused Bears’ offense. The Hurricane used eight and nine defensive players on or near the line of scrimmage.
“We knew if they played their regular defense we should have a good night,” said Pierce County head coach Ryan Herring. “They changed and basically went all or nothing with nine guys on the line of scrimmage.”
It didn’t help PCHS when running back D.J. Bell injured an ankle late in the first half. He returned midway through the second quarter after sitting two series, but had a noticeable limp. Bell still finished with 183 yards on 20 carries, but 113 of the total came on three runs.
Bell had a 31-yard run before the injury as well as a 55-yarder and a 27-yarder after. Had it not been for the injury, however, he likely would’ve scored on the 55-yard dash and at worst picked up far more yards on the second since he was caught from behind on both plays.
Pierce County led 10-0 after its first two possessions. The Hurricane cut the deficit to 10-3 on the first of two field goals by David Vaughn. Bell’s injury came on the kickoff following Vaughn’s first field goal.
Fitzgerald stacked its defense for the run from that point on. The Bears managed 98 yards rushing on 21 carries in the second half, but 41 of the total came on two attempts. Seven of Pierce County’s runs went for zero, or negative yards in the second half.
“They were just going to play zero man, all or nothing (against the run),” Herring said. “But we still had opportunities we didn’t take advantage of. We missed some balls we should’ve caught, missed some assignments, made some mental errors and still had penalties (seven totaling 61 yards) kill drives again like in other games.
“You can’t make the mistakes we made and win a game against a team like that. We didn’t make enough plays and that comes back on me.”
Quarterback Jermaine Brewton ran 23 yards for one Pierce County touchdown while flanker Luke Bennett and running back/linebacker Austin Jernigan teamed on a 74-yard pass off a reverse for the other. Robert Jacobs added a 35-yard field goal and a pair of conversion kicks.
Chance Gamble, who switched between receiver and quarterback in the Hurricane alignment, had touchdown runs of four and 67 yards. The first came on a jet sweep and the second on a straight quarterback keeper.
Mario Clark added Fitzgerald’s other touchdown on a three-yard run while Vaughn had three conversion kicks along with his field goals of 40 and 31 yards, respectively.
After forcing a punt on Fitzgerald’s possession off the kickoff, the visitors needed only four plays to take the lead. Brewton scrambled around left end on a designed pass to score with 7:13 left in the quarter. Bell had his 31-yard run on the drive’s second play, getting tripped up by a diving tackle that kept him from scoring.
Two plays after the ensuing kickoff, Jernigan intercepted a quick slant pass by Rashad Davis and the linebacker returned it 15 yards for a first down at the Fitzgerald 16. A delay of game penalty on the second play got the Bears behind the chains and they ended up settling for Jacobs’ field
goal to lead 10-0 with 3:53 left in the period.
The Hurricane countered with Vaughn’s field goal that ended a eight-play, 57-yard drive. The possession was keyed by a 44-yard pass from Davis to Gamble, who outjumped the defender to pull in the throw.
Fitzgerald drew even midway through the second quarter on Gamble’s first touchdown run, capping a nine-play, 53-yard march. The Hurricane kept the drive alive when Davis hit a wide open Jakorrian Paulk over the middle after first faking screen passes to both to the left and right on a fourth-and-12 play.
“We just didn’t cover the guy,” Herring said. “You make mental errors like that, it’s hard to win any time.”
Pierce County looked as though it would answer on its first play after the kickoff when Bell broke through a stacked line into open field. However, he was caught from behind and had the ball dislodged on the way down with Fitzgerald recovering at the 25.
The Bears were able turn the stop into points for the halftime lead on the Bennett-to-Jernigan play. It came out of a “heavy” run-oriented set of two tight ends, two blockers in front of Brewton in the shotgun and Bennett flanked right.
Brewton started right with the snap while Jernigan slipped out of the backfield left into the flat. The quarterback lateraled to Bennett, who tossed to Jernigan. He (Jernigan) pulled in the pass when a pair of defenders collided near him and completed the play by running over another defender along the sideline on the way to the end zone.
Fitzgerald tied the game on its first possession of the second half when Clark burst up the middle for 65 yards on the first play and scored on the next with 6:58 left in the quarter. The Hurricane took over after Bell was stopped after six yards on a run from punt formation on fourth-and-11 at the Fitzgerald 44.
After forcing a punt, Fitzgerald took the lead on Vaughn’s second field goal on the first play of the final period. The possession was kept alive when Davis found Demarion Dixon alone on the sideline for 20 yards on a fourth-and-4 play from the Pierce County 46.
The Bears threatened on the ensuing possession, moving to the Fitzgerald 19. However, a false start on a third-and-5 play pushed Pierce County back and Brewton was sacked on a pass attempt.
Jacobs came on for a 42-yard field goal attempt, but the snap was high and Bennett was incomplete on a pass attempt.
Three plays later, Gamble sealed the issue when the play action went right and he went off left tackle for his second scoring run.
“They blocked it pretty well and we missed the tackle,” Herring said of Gamble’s run. “Another mistake.”
The Bears are open this week before beginning Region 1-AAA play at rival Brantley County (0-6), which lost 40-23 at Cook High.
“We’ll be all right,” Herring said of the impact of the first defeat. “We’ll bounce back. There’s a lot of character here. We have a good locker room.”