Jermaine Brewton’s 13-yard scoring toss to D.J. Bell with 8:12 remaining proved to be the game-winner Friday night lifting No. 8 Pierce County to a third consecutive region championship.
The touchdown helped the Bears (8-1 overall, 4-0 Region 1-AAA) overcome an early 14-0 deficit to beat previously unbeaten fifth-ranked Appling County (7-1, 2-1) 28-21 inside a packed Jimmy Swain Stadium on Senior Night.
Pierce County will face Region 4 fourth-seed Burke County in the opening round of the state playoffs. The Bears are guaranteed at least two home games if they are able to advance into the second round.
The go-ahead score with 8:12 to play, which was set up by a shanked punt, was sealed with 3:42 to play when defensive end Ty Everson sacked Appling County quarterback Jeremiah Holmes for an 11-yard loss on 4th-and-14 from the Pirates’ 41.
“I knew this was going to be a war and it was that,” said a happy Pierce County head coach Ryan Herring afterwards. “It was them against us for the region title ... there were no options.
“This win says a lot about our players and our community. The community rallied around this game and that was inspiring to see.”
PCHS’s victory, the third straight over the Pirates, spoiled another try for an unbeaten campaign for the home team. The Bears defeated a 9-0 Appling County squad, ranked sixth, 21-14 in the 2011 season finale in Bearville for its first region title in 16 years. Pierce County has now captured four since and six total.
“Tonight was a couple of firsts for us,” Herring stated. “We won a third straight region title for the first time in school history and we beat Appling County for a third straight time for the first time in history. I am so proud of this group of players.”
The Bears’ victory also spoiled Appling County head coach Rick Tomberlin’s first crack to pass legendary Valdosta head coach Wright Bazemore’s victory total of 268.
Bazemore coached 28 seasons in “Titletown” posting a 268-51-7 won-loss record with 13 state titles. Tomberlin is 268-128 (nine schools) in 34 seasons with three state titles.
Appling County threw a couple of haymakers early staggering the Bears in taking a 14-0 lead with 2:07 left in the opening stanza. The Pirates landed only one more punch over the final 38-plus minutes.
“We got off to a terrible start,” said Herring. “They (Pirates’ defensive coaches) changed from their normal 4-3, which they had shown on every play in every game this year, to a 50 with a cover 0 (lockdown man-to-man) and it took us a little bit of time to adjust. To me, that is a compliment to our offense.”
Pierce County’s offensive production was its lowest of the year. The Bears entered averaging 343 yards per game with 199 on the ground and 144 through the air.
They got a season-low 202 total yards, 64 on the ground (35 runs — 1.8 per attempt) and 138 through the air (9-of-16, two interceptions) against the No. 9 scoring defense. PCHS converted on just 2-of-10 third down tries and 2-of-4 on fourth down.
Two of the four touchdowns came on third and fourth down snaps. The first came on a fake punt tying the game at 21-all and the second proved to be the game-winner.
“We had to make a change in personnel on the defensive side with an injury last week at Tattnall County,” said Herring of a second adjustment. “The defensive guys kept playing after the two early scores and gave us a chance. This was a four-quarter game and we played all four quarters.”
The Pirates’ offense came in averaging a Class AAA state-leading 44.4 points per game and bullying teams with a punishing rushing attack averaging 293 yards per outing. PCHS’s fifth-ranked scoring defense held Appling County to a season-low point total, a season-low rushing total of 194 yards (105 yards on two runs for scores), and a season-low 209 yards of total offense.
Appling County took advantage of an early miscue by the Bears. A snap over Brewton’s head in punt formation on PCHS’s first offensive possession set up the Pirates at Pierce County’s eight.
Sharode Roberts scooted nine yards on second-and-goal for the touchdown with 5:05 on the clock. Alex Garcia tacked on the PAT for a 7-0 lead.
The Pirates’ offense followed a second straight forced three-and-out with another score. Holmes sprinted 48 yards on a keeper on the third snap upping the margin to 14-0 after Garcia’s PAT with 2:07 to play in the first period.
Staggering and struggling, PCHS went to a “wildcat” package with Bell (19 carries, 63 yards; 1-of-2, 23 yards, interception) taking direct snaps. The Bears went 66 yards in five plays, the last a Brewton (8-of-14, 115 yards) to Knox Bennett (two catches, 47 yards) touchdown covering 15 yards on the first play of the second quarter. Robert Jacobs added the PAT cutting the deficit to 14-7.
Everson’s fumble recovery on Appling County’s first snap following the kickoff set the Bears up with a short field. PCHS scored in two plays from 17 yards out with Bell racing around left end for a 14-yard score. Jacobs’ PAT evened the heavyweight match at 14-all with 11:13 left in the first half.
The two defenses took over from there with the Pirates punting three times. Pierce County punted twice and threw an interception.
Appling County got a big defensive stop on 4th-and-three to start the third quarter at its own 38. Three plays later, wide receiver Keshawn Walker raced 57 yards for a touchdown out of the Pirates’ “wildcat” package. Garcia kicked the margin to 21-14 with 8:03 left in the period.
The Bears tied the score at 21-all two series later. PCHS moved 51 yards in eight plays with the final snap one of the biggest of the year.
Facing 4th-and-16 at the Pirates’ 32, Brewton got in punt formation. Instead, he faked a rugby kick running right, stopped and threw back across the field to a wide open Bennett silencing the Appling County fans. Jacobs drilled the 30-yard PAT to even the score with :56.1 on the clock.
“I saved a lot of plays all season just for this game,” said Herring of the fake punt and eventual game-winning score. “I dug deep in the hat and thankfully we executed them perfectly.”
Following a three-and-out and a 17-yard punt by Appling County, PCHS moved 47 yards in seven plays. The last was reminiscent of a University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow’s jump pass from near the goal line.
Facing 3rd-and-2 from the Pirates’ 13, Brewton faked a run up the middle, jumped and hit a wide open Bell circling out of the backfield on an arrow route.
“The only thing I was going to do was go for the end zone,” said Herring of the third down play and possible fourth down play. “That’s all I’m going to say about that.”
Appling County’s response was a nine-play, 4:30 possession eventually totaling 11 yards and ending with Everson’s biggest tackle of the year.
PCHS ate up the final 3:42 converting a 4th-and-one from the Pirates’ 20 with just over a minute to play.