TUSCUMBIA — Feeling written off early after a slow start to the season in a new classification, Deshler’s football players showed Friday night that the path to a state championship still runs through them.
The Class 3A No. 10 Tigers (9-3) put together a complete game, outplaying top-ranked Piedmont (11-1) in every phase of a stunning 28-6 second-round playoff win.
Deshler, which has won eight straight after starting the season 1-3, never trailed. The closest the Bulldogs came was 7-6 with 5:19 left in the first half.
From there, the Tigers defense bent but didn’t break, denying Piedmont points on three trips inside the 25-yard line, and the offense used a balanced attack to score three unanswered touchdowns.
Deshler advances to a quarterfinal rematch with No. 4 Lauderdale County (11-1), which defeated Deshler 35-21 in Week 3.
“A bunch of people at the beginning of the season were talking about how our season was over,” quarterback Justin Cantrell said. “We decided we weren’t going to listen to outside voices and come together. Now, just like it was in 4A, the road comes through Deshler in 3A.”
Cantrell finished with 135 yards passing, including 96 while completing 5 of 6 attempts in the second half. He finished 6-of-10 overall with touchdown passes of 39 and 40 yards.
Terrance Byrd did most of the damage in the rushing attack with a game-high 125 yards on 20 carries and touchdowns of 10 and 1 yards.
Deshler blocked a punt on an opponent’s opening possession for the second straight week, when freshman Tyreck Ricks got one at midfield. That set up a four-play, 41-yard drive capped by Byrd’s 10-yard scoring run.
Piedmont responded two drives later. Quarterback Steven Bradley found Devonta Savage for a 43-yard pass to the Tigers 20 before connecting with Jamie Major on an 18-yard touchdown pass.
The extra-point kick missed wide left, preserving a permanent Deshler lead.
“We knew special teams in big games comes up big, and it has for us the last couple weeks,” Deshler coach John Mothershed said. “The blocked punt was amazing. That really got things going for us.”
Cantrell connected with Juakeem Fuqua for a 39-yard touchdown and a 14-6 halftime lead.
Piedmont threatened on three of its four second-half drives before backups ran out the clock on the Bulldogs’ final possession.
A second-half-opening 10-play, 58-yard drive to the Deshler 12 ended with a wide-left 29-yard field goal attempt.
The following Piedmont drive ended at the Deshler 24 when Tigers defensive end Chandler Lewis intercepted a screen pass.
The Bulldogs then drove 50 yards in nine plays to the Deshler 8, but it ended with a fourth-down pass that led the receiver out of bounds out of the back of the end zone.
“Our guys always seemed to step up with big plays,” Mothershed said. “We did a great job of stopping the run, and our guys offensively seemed to come up with big conversions every time we needed them.”
Deshler converted 8 of 12 times on third or fourth down, including 3 of 4 on fourth.
Cantrell found tight end B.J. Bailey in a mismatch in man-to-man coverage for a 40-yard touchdown pass and a 21-6 third-quarter lead.
The Tigers capped the scoring on Byrd’s 1-yard touchdown run with 10:21 to play, set up by Fuqua’s 20-yard run to the 1.
Bradley led Piedmont with 177 yards and a touchdown on 10-of-19 passing with an interception. The Bulldogs managed 103 yards rushing on 29 carries.
Deshler’s DeAndre Acklin had a fumble recovery and a sack, while Taj Bates had a sack and forced fumble.
“We are a much better team than we were to start the season,” Acklin said. “We have one of the best coaching staffs in the state. There was some doubt after we lost three, but we have picked each other up. We are one of the best teams in the state.”
Bryan App can be reached at 256-740-5730 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @bappster on Twitter.