If Signal Mountain needed a challenge after a sloppy win over Grundy County a week earlier, it was staring the Eagles in the face Friday night.
South Pittsburg was coming to the mountaintop to renew what has quickly become one of the area's hottest rivalries.
"We didn't play well last week and the coaching staff really challenged the kids this week," Signal Mountain coach Bill Price said. "Everybody responded tonight."
That response, led by senior fullback and linebacker Zack Bowman, resulted in a 65-36 victory over the former district-rival Pirates.
Bowman ran 12 times for 149 yards in the first half and got just one carry in the second and finished with 150 yards and a touchdown and also contributed nine tackles.
"His run and touchdown right before the half was a big momentum-changer for us," Price said.
The 190-pounder ripped off a 39-yard run to the Pirates' 1-yard line, and his score with 0:05 left in the first half blunted South Pittsburg's furious second-quarter rally that netted 24 points.
The Eagles, though, shared the carries in a fashion they had not shown this season. Tim McClendon, who scored a school-record five rushing touchdowns, finished with 80 yards on 11 carries. Andrew Price, who had a touchdown reception to open the scoring, added 69 yards on 15 carries.
Hard-nosed Mitchell Hall, who dragged at least four Pirates on a 9-yard gain, contributed 32 yards, and even quarterback Reese Phillips got into the running spirit with 18 yards on four carries.
"Our offensive line was amazing. You could drive a truck through some of the holes we had," Bowman said. "We always share the carries. Whenever one guy gets tired, another one goes in."
Their combined rushing performance, which yielded 351 yards, overshadowed the performance of South Pittsburg running back Jajuan Lankford. The sophomore came in averaging 167 yards per game - even in limited playing time because of the Pirates' numerous runaway victories - but Lankford scored four touchdowns, including on kickoff returns of 86 and 84 yards.
The Pirates, who had several starters out including safety Michael Allen, linebacker Corbin Hale and standout receiver/cornerback Antonio Chubb, lost quarterback Jake Stone to a concussion late in the first half when he was nailed by a defensive teammate on an Eagles pass.
It was that kind of game.
"We challenged the kids and they performed and we got better," Coach Price said. "We did what we had to do. We wanted to line up and get physical, and the offensive line deserves a lot of credit.
"We have a lot of respect for South Pittsburg. I think we had a few more players and the depth showed up in the second half, but I hope we get to see them in Cookeville [in different state finals]."
Bowman echoed his coach's sentiments.
"People were trying to say they weren't as strong as last year, but we knew better," he said. "They're a tough, physical football team and we rose to the challenge. There was no trash-talking on either side because both teams have a lot of respect for the other."
Signal led 14-0 lead after the first quarter on Price's 4-yard reception and the first McClendon score, but South Pittsburg rallied. Stone scored from a yard out, answered by McClendon's 33-yard run. Then Lankford's first TD return made it 22-16. McClendon and Lankford swapped TDs before Bowman's TD made it 36-24 at the half.
McClendon's 2-yard run was the only third-quarter score, lifting Signal to a 44-24 edge before Lankford's 9-yard run again cut into the lead.
But the Eagles' Chris Abernathy then returned a kick 68 yards and McClendon and Cale Shelton scored to make it 65-30 before Lankford's last kickoff return.