COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — It wasn't simply what Union City did that helped earn the program's second Class 1A state football championship Friday afternoon, but also what the Golden Tornadoes didn't do.
Second-ranked Union City didn't waver from its grind-it-out offense, didn't attempt a pass and didn't allow top-ranked South Pittsburg's offense the number of big plays it typically relies on. Because of all that, once the Golden Tornadoes took the lead midway through the second quarter, they didn't look back, claiming a 23-14 victory.
"Falling behind by two touchdowns to a team like that is a huge deficit to overcome," first-year Pirates coach Tim Moore said. "They can control the clock so much that we knew coming in we had to keep pace with them and match them every time they scored.
"Once they got ahead by two touchdowns, with the way their defense was playing, it was just a lot to make up."
For South Pittsburg, it was death by a thousand cuts as the Golden Tornadoes didn't so much gash the Pirates defense as they did methodically maintain control, converting 7 of 12 third downs and both fourth-down attempts into firsts. Union City averaged 5.7 yards on 56 rushing attempts and nearly doubled the Pirates in time of possession by holding the ball for 18 more plays.
"Their triple-option offense is really tough to stop," said Pirates senior linebacker Payne Mosley, who returned this year from a season-ending knee injury and was named the game's defensive MVP for his game-high 19 total tackles, which included 11 solos. "We would get some big stops at times, and then they would capitalize any time we had a guy out of place.
"They're the best team we've seen all year. They're strong up front and their defense was real physical."
Union City held the Pirates to 131 rushing yards, limiting Mr. Football award winner Jajuan Lankford to a season-low 40 yards.
After South Pittsburg opened the game with an eight-play, 65-yard drive capped by Lankford's 1-yard touchdown run, Union City dominated the rest of the first half, outgaining the Pirates 207-42 from that point.
The Golden Tornadoes answered South Pittsburg's drive with a seven-play scoring drive of its own to pull even. After forcing the only punt by the Pirates, Union City then set out on a 12-play, 78-yard drive, converting two third downs and scoring on a 3-yard run by Ricky Henry on fourth-and-goal.
The momentum shifted squarely to Union City on the next series, when South Pittsburg attempted a fake punt but Lankford was hemmed in and forced to cut back and try a desperation pass that fell incomplete.
That gave Union City the ball at the Pirates' 40, and five plays later, Henry scored again for a commanding 20-7 lead.
"We didn't call for the fake from the sideline, but our guys on the field can check to it if they see something that makes them think it will work," Moore said. "Obviously they thought there was something there, but it wasn't, and after that we were going to need a lot of good things to happen for us to come back."
South Pittsburg squandered one scoring opportunity in the third quarter when Kitt Grider passed to Corbin Fitzgerald for what turned into an 87-yard gain to the Union City 10. But the Pirates lost 16 yards on their ensuing four plays and still trailed by 13 late in the quarter.
But they were able to capitalize on Union City's only mistake of the game, as Fitzgerald pounced on a Reid fumble. Six plays later, on a fourth-and-4, Kahlil Mitchell began a play designed to go left, broke two tackles and cut back to the right, breaking another tackle and diving into the end zone to pull the Pirates within 20-14 with 11:08 remaining in the game.
"I knew I had to get the first down and was doing everything I could just to do that," said Mitchell, who led the team with 107 yards on 17 carries. "We've been a second-half team all season, so we still felt like we were going to come back and win it. We just fell short."
South Pittsburg had shut out nine of its 13 opponents in the second half this season, but the three points it allowed Union City put the game away.
Union City answered the threat by chewing up yards and the clock on a 10-play drive before settling for a 21-yard field goal that gave them the nine-point cushion. The Pirates threatened again late, driving to the Golden Tornadoes' 15 before coming up less than a yard short of converting a fourth-and-4.
Union City had a pair of backs with more than 100 rushing yards -- Alex Reid with 106 on 10 carries and offensive MVP Henry with 101 yards and the two TDs on 28 runs -- in gaining 319 total yards on the ground.
"All our backs ran hard, but the real credit has to go to our offensive line," Union City coach Darren Bowling said. "You don't win a state title if you can't win up front, and we did that. We didn't have to do anything fancy. We just did what we do."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...