COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — Aside from the weather, South Pittsburg couldn’t have asked for a better start to Friday afternoon’s Class 1A state title game against Union City at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium.
The Pirates received the opening kickoff and methodically moved the ball downfield, driving 71 yards in eight plays. Class A Mr. Football Back of the Year Jajuan Lankford capped the impressive series with a 1-yard touchdown run midway through the first.
The problem for South Pittsburg (12-2), playing in its fourth BlueCross Bowl in five seasons, was the final 3 1/2 quarters.
“We just didn’t play the type of ball we’re used to playing,” Lankford said after his team’s 23-14 loss. “Can’t blame it on the weather. Nothin’. We just didn’t get it done. They just played harder than we did.”
Union City (13-1), averaging over 250 pounds per man along its offensive and defensive fronts, thoroughly dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball from that point on.
The Golden Tornadoes outgained the Pirates 319-131 and held a 13-minute advantage in time of possession. Their offense scored on its first three series, while the defense forced consecutive three-and-outs, along with a South Pitt fumble in the first half to spot Union City a 20-7 lead at the break.
“Against a team like that, it was a huge deficit to overcome,” Pirates head coach Tim Moore said. “They do such a good job controlling the football, and we knew coming in we had to at least keep pace with them. If they scored, we had to answer. You get behind and that plays into their hands there.”
Added Lankford, “We’d been down before. We couldn’t give up; the game wasn’t over. We had a whole second half to play. ... We never gave up.”
South Pittsburg’s defense tightened up to start the second half, recording its first stop of the afternoon on the Golden Tornadoes’ opening possession.
“We made adjustments; put more dudes in the box,” said senior Khalil Mitchell, who ran for a team-high 107 yards on 17 carries while recording four tackles defensively. “We just flew to the ball. We flew down hill, attacked the dive and limited the quarterback’s yards on the pull."
An excellent punt from Union City’s Case Cook pinned the Pirates deep inside their own territory, but an 87-yard completion from senior quarterback Kitt Grider to Corbin Fitzgerald set them up with first-and-goal at their opponent’s 10-yard line.
Three straight negative-yardage plays put South Pittsburg in a fourth-and-goal situation from the 26, and a heavy Golden Tornadoes rush resulted in an errant throw from Grider.
“We just had opportunities and didn’t capitalize like we should have,” Mitchell said. “It’s a team full of seniors and we kind of let that one slip away.”
Lankford forced a fumble, which was recovered by Fitzgerald, on Union City’s next possession, preserving hope for the Pirates, who still faced a two-score deficit. Mitchell found the end zone minutes later, trimming his team’s deficit to 20-14.
For the first time in the second half, though, the Golden Tornadoes were able to sustain an offensive drive, and they marched 56 yards on 10 plays before Cook connected on a 21-yard field goal to once again extend his team’s advantage to two scores.
Grider finished with 141 yards on 4 of 6 passing, hooking up with Fitzgerald three times for 119 yards. Lankford was limited to just 77 all-purpose yards on 14 touches. Senior linebacker Payne Mosley led the way defensively for the Panthers, recording a team-high 15 tackles (11 solo), while junior defensive tackle Josh Long tallied 7.5 stops.
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