SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — Pacing the locker room just moments before sending top-ranked South Pittsburg to the field, Pirates defensive coordinator Shawn Peek repeated two words over and over to the team: "Fast and violent!"
Once on the field, Peek's swarming defensive unit answered its coach's plea, setting the pace early by relentlessly attacking in a 40-0 throttling of Gordonsville in a Class 1A quarterfinal Friday.
The Pirates allowed just 24 rushing yards on 31 carries and gave up 85 total yards to the Tigers, who did not pick up a first down until midway through the third quarter. South Pittsburg's defense also forced two second-half turnovers that directly resulted in touchdowns.
"We hang our hat on our defense every week," Pirates head coach Vic Grider said. "Coach Peek continues to come up with a great plan every week, and if we get to where we want to be at the end it's going to be because of our defense."
In next week's semifinals, South Pittsburg (12-0) will visit fifth-ranked Greenback (11-2), which defeated Oliver Springs 35-0 in another quarterfinal. The Cherokees have appeared in three of the past four state title games, twice knocking out the Pirates in the semifinal round during that span.
After scoring 50 first-half points last week, the Pirates struggled on offense for much of the first half against the Tigers. They opened the game with an 11-play drive, reaching the Gordonsville 1 before being turned away empty-handed. After the first of what would be eight straight possessions that ended with a three-and-out, the Tigers handed South Pittsburg great field position with a 6-yard punt.
Two plays later, senior fullback Brett Nelson scored the first of his two short touchdowns, covering 5 yards. The Pirates extended the lead on their next possession when Mr. Football finalist Ronto Tipton took an option pitch, cut inside the pursuit and sprinted 31 yards to the end zone. Tipton, who was limited to just 40 yards on seven carries, added a 3-yard scoring run early in the second quarter.
With starting quarterback Brayden Sanders unable to play in the second half because of an injury, Grider moved receiver Jaylyn Hubbard behind center and the senior responded with touchdown runs of 35 and 29 yards as the Pirates scored 22 points in the third quarter to put the game away.
Hubbard finished with 81 rushing yards, all in the second half, and also recovered a fumble on defense. His brother, JayShawn, returned a second-quarter interception 40 yards to set up a score.
"Jaylyn is a dual-threat guy that we have all the faith in the world in to get the job done," Tipton said. "We knew we had to come out in the second half and play better. That first half wasn't really us, so we wanted to come out and play a lot harder and that's what we did."