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PREP FOOTBALL: Cougars fall in state championship contest
Second consecutive finals loss for Cougars to Thomas Jefferson
Piedmont FB
Piedmont Academy senior quarterback Chris Pittman runs for yardage in the state championship game against Thomas Jefferson. - Special to The Covington News

Monticello, Ga. — Things started off on a positive note for the Piedmont Academy football team last Friday night, but by the time the final horn sounded the Cougars saw their dreams of a state championship for the 2020 season fall short.

The Cougars (6-4 overall) were defeated by visiting Thomas Jefferson Academy, 41-14, in a surprisingly one-sided contest for the final three quarters. The Jaguars (10-3 overall) have now defeated Piedmont two consecutive seasons in the GISA Class A state championship game.

On a championship night which featured cold weather, a strong wind and heavy rain leading up to kickoff, Piedmont took the game’s opening possession and marched 60 yards in seven plays for a 7-0 lead. Senior quarterback Chris Pittman covered the final nine yards with 8:40 left in the first quarter. Landon Conner added the point-after kick.

“We couldn’t ask for a better start to the game,” coach Will Johnson said. “We were so close to going up 14-0 but after that it was like we were playing in quicksand.”

Thomas Jefferson began their opening drive at its own 47-yard line but fumbled on the first play. Mason Tanner recovered the fumble for the Cougars.

The teams traded punts before Johnson’s team moved into scoring position again. Piedmont had a first and goal at the 5-yard line before a penalty moved the Cougars back. The offense could not recover and a 26-yard field goal was eventually unsuccessful.

That sequence of events seemed to be the turning point of the contest. Thomas Jefferson responded by scoring on three consecutive possessions for a two-touchdown halftime lead. TJA reached the end zone on a 45-yard run by Dawson Sharpe, a 2-yard run by Matt McNeely and a 20-yard pass from Cam Beasley to Aiden Cobb.

“It’s crazy how a game can change like that,” Johnson said. “We couldn’t stop them at all after that. Thomas Jefferson beat us in every aspect of the game.”

Leading 21-7 at halftime, TJA added two third quarter scores to seal the deal and the championship. The Jaguars scored on a 10-yard run by McNeely and on a 40-yard return on a fumble recovery by Sharpe within a span of nine seconds late in the third quarter.

John Durden’s 4-yard score with 4:08 left gave Thomas Jefferson a 41-7 advantage.

The elements didn’t play as much of a factor as the Jaguars effective ball control offense and a stingy defense used to contain Pittman. The senior All State player had rushed and passed for more 1,000 yards coming into the title game with more than 30 total touchdowns. 

Pittman did pass for a 2-yard score to Ryan Holder with 1:03 left in the contest. Conner again added the extra point.

Piedmont was penalized five times for 35 yards in the first half while TJA did not have a penalty.

The Cougars won the regular season at home, 28-7, between the teams. Both coaches, however, said leading into the rematch they expected the championship game to be close.

Piedmont’s last football state championship came in 2011.

“The pressure of the moment may have gotten to us,” Johnson said. “The conditions didn’t help. The wind made it tough to pass and Thomas Jefferson beat us in the trenches so we couldn’t run the football. Every time we tried to fight back something would happen. We had way too many mistakes and turnovers.”

Pittman was 16-of-29 for 145 yards. Holder finished with five receptions for 60 yards and a score.

“Early in the game Chris was able to run the football like he normally does but as the game went on Thomas Jefferson did a good job of winning the line of scrimmage,” Johnson said.”

While disappointed at falling for the second consecutive season in the championship game, Johnson said the program is still progressing.

“We increased our number of wins this year and certainly are looking to get back again next season,” the coach said.

For TJA, the Jaguars were able to claim another state title for their storied program.

“We have a bad habit of starting a game slow,” said Thomas Jefferson coach Terence Hennessy. “It was that way going back to last season. We have to try to fix that before next year. Once we were able to recover, we starting clicking and then defensively was able to slow Piedmont down.”

While McNeely was the leading rusher for the Jaguar offense, he also made significant contributions on defense, including the drive which ended with a missed field goal for Cougars.

“Keeping Piedmont out of the end zone on that series allowed us to gain some energy and we picked up our level of play,” Hennessy said.

Thomas Jefferson used a new defensive alignment at times which the team had not previously shown.

“Normally we play a 4-2-5,” Hennessy said. “We went to a 3-3 which allowed us to keep six in the box and gave us more options to keep Pittman inside the tackles. In the 3-3, Matt (McNeely) went everywhere Pittman did. We never felt like we had to use this scheme but we went to it after Piedmont marched down the field and scored on their first possession.”