Bulldogs survive Pickens comeback

By Eugene Jolley
Courier Sports

PICKENS — Pendleton held off a furious fourth-quarter comeback Friday night to beat Pickens, 26-16, thanks in large part to nine quarterback sacks.

Tommy McGaha/Courier A swarm of Pickens defenders take down a Pendleton runner during the Bulldogs’ 26-16 win in the Blue Flame’s home opener on Friday night.

Tommy McGaha/Courier
A swarm of Pickens defenders take down a Pendleton runner during the Bulldogs’ 26-16 win in the Blue Flame’s home opener on Friday night.

It was the season opener for Pendleton and the home opener for Pickens.

Pendleton junior defensive end Brad Johnson led the way for Pendleton with four sacks and two forced fumbles. Fittingly, his sack of Blue Flame quarterback Tanner Stegall ended a final comeback attempt.

“It’s frustrating,” Pickens coach John Boggs said. “I think at times we are our own worst enemies offensively. We get behind the sticks and are going backwards. You get some positive yardage and you start going backwards. You can’t do that. I like these guys’ fight and I like their effort and I like how hard they play. We’ve got to figure out a way to not shoot ourselves in the foot early. I think Pendleton is a good football team. I think they did a great job defensively shutting us down at times. We had to do some different things — spreading them out — to move the ball late.”

For a second consecutive game, the Blue Flame defense faced a third-year starting quarterback. Bulldog signal-caller Gibson Black led on the first drive. Covering 80 yards in 12 plays, Black converted once on third down and twice more on second and long before calling his own number from 12 yards out with 6:53 left in the first quarter.

Pickens answered with a nice drive. Fullback Gunner Covey ripped off a 17-yard run and had a 16-yard reception from Stegall. But a sack and a dropped pass stalled the drive, setting up Matt Gravely to kick a 44-yard field goal, making it 7-3 with 3:18 left in the first quarter.

The big play was again a bug-a-boo in the first half for the Blue Flame defense, and Pendleton hit it big on its next play from scrimmage. Black went play action and found Kiso Williams for an 80-yard scoring strike. The kick missed wide left, making it 13-3 with 3:04 left in the first quarter.

Pendleton forced a punt following a sack and looked to convert again, but Nicquan Ramsey fumbled in the end zone and Adam Thomas recovered for the Blue Flame.

Unfortunately, Pickens gave it back three plays later as Johnson hit Stegall from behind, causing a fumble. On the next play, Black threw a fade pass on the right side to Wake Forest commit Malik Grate, who made a leaping catch with Thomas in good coverage. Nate Higginbotham’s kick missed, leaving it at 19-3 with 8:06 left in the half.

The Blue Flame struggled offensively in the first half, but finally got a break late in the half when Black dropped the ball in punt formation and Ridge Clark clobbered him at the Bulldog 39. The drive stalled, and Gravely tried a 51-yard kick, but it just missed left, easily carrying the distance with 1:08 left in the half.

Pendleton could get no more as Black was sacked by Tyler Gravely to end the half.

Stegall got the Blue Flame going with a 24-yard keeper on the first play from scrimmage in the second half. On the next play, Johnson hit Stegall from behind again, causing another lost fumble.

This time, the Blue Flame defense came up big. Thomas nearly picked off a third-down pass and then broke up another with a big hit on Grate on fourth down.

“Adam Thomas did a great job,” Boggs said. “He did a great job defensively making some plays, too. He’s a guy that came in late. He’s really playing hard and kind of starting to blossom for us, and that’s good to see.”

Pickens began to move the ball and got two Bulldog pass interference penalties to set up a potential score. Back-to-back sacks — one by Johnson — forced another kick, this time from 46 yards, that again was just off on the right side with 1:53 left in the third quarter.

“I thought defensively we did a good job in the second half. We came back and kind of settled down,” Boggs said. “I think the thing that hurt us tonight was the big plays defensively, and we missed some kicks, which is a little surprising. They were long kicks, but (Gravely) is going to usually make those.”

The Pickens defense again held. Black was stopped on third down by Cole Seaborn, Will Reynolds, Jerrad Pace and Matt Gravely, forcing a punt. The offense couldn’t convert, and after a third long 50-plus yard punt by Gravely, Pendleton hit on another big play. Facing third and six, Black hooked up again with Williams over the middle for a 34-yard scoring strike, and Higginbotham’s kick made it 26-3 with 9:03 left in the game.

Pickens didn’t quit. Stegall found Sam Lawson on third and long for a 33-yard connection and then hit Isaiah Ferguson for 34 to set up Covey’s one-yard touchdown run. The try for two by Covey was stopped, making it 26-9 with 6:36 left.

“I thought Sam Lawson made some big catches for us tonight to keep some drives alive,” Boggs said. “Isaiah Ferguson made some big catches. We’ve got to find a way to be more consistent offensively. I thought Gunner (Covey) ran the ball hard.”

The Blue Flame defense got the ball back as Ramsey fumbled and Clark recovered at the 49. Ferguson and Lawson had big catches, and Pendleton was hit with a facemask penalty on a fourth-down sack, keeping the drive alive. Covey scored from four yards out with 2:48 left, and Gravely’s kick made it 26-16.

Pickens got the ball once more, but Johnson sacked Stegall on fourth down to end the comeback.

“I did a poor job as offensive line coach of coaching up our protections,” Boggs said. “We’ve got to get that better. We’re better than that. And our players are better than that. We sort of cut him loose a few times, and that’s why we were not able to do a few things in the passing game.”

Pickens will play host to Liberty Friday night. The Red Devils won last year’s game 27-16, so revenge should be on the Blue Flame’s minds.

“I was proud of the team’s effort,” Boggs said. “This team has a lot of fight in it. They’re going to show up every Monday ready to work. We’ll work hard this weekend to try and correct our mistakes and start getting ready for Liberty next Friday.

“These guys are pretty resilient. They had a great week of practice this week. I was proud of them. We got better. It didn’t necessarily show tonight on the field, (but) we’re making strides and we’ll continue to try and get better every day and get ready for them next week.”