COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — A short field turned into a long day for the Meigs County High School football team as Peabody took advantage of excellent starting position in the first half to build an insurmountable lead.
After a slow start, the Golden Tide took control with three short touchdown drives early, then continued to pull away for a 35-13 win over Meigs County in the TSSAA Class 2A Blue Cross Bowl on Saturday at Tennessee Tech. Peabody won the state championship game for the third straight year.
"We started our first drive at our 1-yard line and couldn't get it out of there, so they got the short field and that really hurt us," said Tigers coach Jason Fitzgerald, whose team had to settle for a runner-up finish for the second year in a row, having lost 27-16 to Peabody in 2019. "I thought winning the line of scrimmage was going to be a key, and they won up there in the first half. We dug ourselves such a hole that we couldn't get out of."
The Golden Tide (14-0), who extended their winning streak to 37 games, became the ninth football program in Tennessee to win at least three consecutive state titles. However, Peabody won't be able to compete for next year's 2A championship because the school's enrollment was just below the cutoff to remain in that classification and will drop back down to 1A, where the program won its first state title in 2014.
"They're a really good team, but they're somebody else's headache for a while now," Fitzgerald joked.
It was the third and final day of the TSSAA's state finals for football, and also the third day a Chattanooga-area team played for a title, with McCallie repeating as the Division II-AAA champion on Thursday and South Pittsburg dropping the Class 1A final on Friday.
The game could have started much differently as Meigs (14-1) recovered a fumble at the Peabody 29 on the second play, but a pre-snap penalty kept the Tide in possession and they flipped the field with a 65-yard punt that was downed at the Tigers' 1.
Three plays did not net a first down, and after that Peabody began to take advantage of positive field position, starting with an eight-play, 40-yard touchdown drive that included a 4th-and-14 conversion and was capped by Drequan Vaughn's 11-yard run.
What would have been a 52-yard Tigers touchdown to answer was called back by a penalty, and an 8-yard punt gave Peabody a short field once more. The Tide covered 42 yards in nine plays, with Vaughn again scoring, this time on a 1-yard run.
Peabody seemingly erased Meigs County's hopes of its first championship by going 54 yards in eight plays in the final three minutes of the first half, with Vaughn — who was named the game's MVP — punching in his third score of the half on a 4-yard run for a commanding 21-0 lead.
Vaughn finished with 90 yards on 17 carries while teammate Khalik Ganaway, a Tennessee Titans Mr. Football finalist, had 99 yards on 21 carries.
In the first half, Meigs was held to 36 total yards (18 rushing on 12 carries) and was 0-for-5 in third down conversions.
"They put us in a spot where we were either going to roll over or put up a fight, and I think we came back out in the second half and put up a good fight," said running back Will Meadows, one of 14 seniors who finished their Meigs career as the winningest class in program history with a 52-5 overall record, two state runner-up finishes and a run to the 2018 semifinals.
"I think we showed a lot of heart," added Meadows, a Mr. Football finalist who finished with 79 rushing yards on 24 tough carries. "It's not easy to come back from being down 28-0, but we ended up making it a pretty good ballgame."
After Carson Vandiver's 22-yard interception return put Peabody up 28-0 midway through the third quarter, Meigs countered with a 14-play, 74-yard touchdown drive finished by Meadows' 1-yard run.
The Tigers continued to gain momentum when Da'quan Tatum forced a Peabody fumble, Noah Powers recovered and Logan Carroll, who led his team with 85 rushing yards and threw for 43 more, cashed in the turnover on a 1-yard run to close the gap to 28-13.
But that was as close as Meigs could get as Peabody added a late touchdown before its defense, which held nine of 14 opponents to 10 or fewer points and didn't allow more than 21 all season, closed out the win.
"Our kids fought hard the whole time and we got within two scores going into the fourth quarter, but they answered when they needed to," Fitzgerald said. "You can't talk about what-ifs. They won the ballgame because they're a quality team.
"It doesn't feel good right now, but when we look back on it later, those guys will be proud of what they accomplished."