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Pike County flexes muscles in regional win

By By SCOTT COOPER
The Pike County Bulldogs showed why they are one of the most highly regarded teams in the state when they took the field in Friday night's Class 3A Region 1 meeting with the Blue Eagles at W.S. Neal Stadium.
After building a 14-0 lead with touchdowns on two of their first three possessions, the Bulldogs withstood a Neal rally that cut the margin to 14-12 at the beginning of the second quarter. With momentum clearly in favor of the Blue Eagles at that point, Pike County (1-1, 1-0) righted the ship by adding two more second-quarter touchdowns to reassume control with a 27-12 halftime advantage.
Although Neal (1-1, 0-1) scraped and clawed in a determined attempt at a comeback, the Bulldogs continued pulling away in second-half action. Two more scores stretched the lead to 41-12 before the Blue Eagles fought back with two late touchdowns to pull within 41-24 by game's end.
Although leaving no doubt the loss was disappointing, Neal head coach Shane Smothers praised the no-quit attitude of his players and emphasized the need for the Blue Eagles to remain focused.
Against Pike County, Neal's offensive unit got an opportunity to test the Bulldogs' defense early by receiving the opening kickoff. However, after three plays netted a minus 16 yards, the Blue Eagles were forced to punt.
Pike County put the ball in play on its 47-yard line following the Neal punt and promptly marched down the field toward paydirt. A short pass over the middle that gained nine yards on first down was followed by four consecutive running plays that moved the ball to the Blue Eagle 19-yard line. Facing a third down and seven at that point, an aerial connection on the next play covered the remaining yards needed for the game's initial touchdown and gave the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead after the PAT.
After the teams traded punts on their next couple of possessions, a Neal turnover deep in Blue Eagle territory led to another Pike County score.
Recovering the Blue Eagle fumble on Neal's 16-yard yard line with just over two minutes remaining in the opening quarter, the Bulldogs took three plays to cross the goal line. The PAT was successful, making the score stand at 14-0 with 1:55 left in the first quarter.
On the ensuing kickoff, Alphonso Gross brought life to the Blue Eagles with an electrifying return. Gross received the kick on the 1-yard line before patiently waited for his blocking to develop while scanning the field for an opening. He then proceeded up the middle before veering toward the right sideline and igniting the afterburners on a 99-yard return for a touchdown. The missed PAT made the score stand at 14-6 with 1:39 still to go in the opening quarter.
Riding the crest of their newfound momentum, the Blue Eagles recovered the kickoff that followed on the Bulldogs' 37-yard line and marched down the field for another score.
Following a 4-yard loss on first down, consecutive Gross carries moved the ball to the 24-yard line for a first down. Gross, who had 137 yards on 16 carries in addition to his 99-yard kickoff return, continued to carry the load by getting the call on the next three snaps and moving the chains to the 1-yard line. From there, Justin Smith crossed the goal line on a quarterback sneak.
An attempt to knot the score with a two-point conversion was unsuccessful, but the Blue Eagles had renewed life at 14-12 with 9:36 to go in the half.
After the Bulldogs returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to the Neal 15-yard line, the Blue Eagles defense stood tall. Throwing Pike County for a 5-yard net loss on four offensive attempts, Neal's defensive unit set the stage for a Blue Eagle drive that threatened to overtake the lead.
A first-down run lost a yard before Jake Bailey's tough carry up the middle moved the football to the Blue Eagle 25-yard line. Facing third-and-five from there, Smith unleashed a frozen rope down the left side of the field that Marcus Folmar gathered on Pike County's 30-yard line. Two plays later, however, the drive ended when the Bulldogs recovered a Neal fumble.
Having shot-down the Blue Eagles' threat, it took five plays for the Bulldogs to cross the goal line and reassume control. Quarterback Chris Nickson, who accounted for 271 total yards for Pike County, sped into the end zone on a 35-yard option play to push the lead to 21-12 with the PAT.
Following a pass interception on Neal's next offensive series, Pike County gained additional breathing room just before the half. Beginning from the Pike County 48-yard line, the six-play drive was culminated with a 6-yard Nickson quarterback keeper into the end zone that gave the Bulldogs a 27-12 advantage at intermission.
After a scoreless third quarter, two more Pike County touchdowns in the final stanza pushed the leading total to 41-12 before the Blue Eagles gallantly fought back with quick-striking offensive firepower.
Gross and Folmar were responsible for a two-play scoring drive that began on the Neal 42-yard line. A Gross run on first down moved the ball to the Pike County 32-yard line. Folmar then took the handoff on an end-around before racing across the goal line and cutting the deficit to 41-18.
On the Blue Eagles' next possession, Gross led a four-play scoring drive that covered 80 yards. A first-down Gross run covered 49 yards to the Pike County 31-yard line. After two pass attempts fell incomplete, Gross took matters into his own hands as he received a swing pass to the right and cut upfield for a touchdown that made final score 41-24.