SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — In a town noted as the Fireworks Capital of the South, there is a natural fascination with the glitz of things that cause folks to rise from their seats in excitement.
But while South Pittsburg's offense has dazzled this football season — the Pirates have scored 27 touchdowns of 30-plus yards and have averaged a gaudy 50 points and more than 400 yards in 12 wins — the defense has created just as much buzz with its flair for being steadily stifling.
As the top-ranked Pirates (12-1) make their fourth Class 1A semifinal appearance in the past five seasons, their Cast Iron Curtain crew will be tested unlike any game since their lone loss Oct. 9 at Meigs County, which remains undefeated and is in the Class 2A semis this week. Second-ranked Coalfield (12-0), which visits South Pittsburg for Friday's matchup, has scored five-plus touchdowns in seven of its wins and has averaged 9.5 yards per play this season.
Lake County (7-1) hosts Fayetteville (11-2) in the other semifinal, with the BlueCross Bowl for the 1A title set for Dec. 4 at Tennessee Tech. South Pittsburg most recently played for a state championship in 2013.
"Our kids seem to thrive off being challenged," Pirates defensive coordinator Brad Waggoner said. "In today's game, it's really hard to shut offenses down because they're so wide open, but our goal every game is to get a shutout. We take it personal when somebody scores or even moves the ball on us.
"It might take a series or two to adjust to whatever the other team is trying to attack us with, but our kids have done a great job of that. I know it's an old cliché, but defense still wins championships."
Waggoner, who was the head coach when Trousdale County played for the 2A title in 2018, was hired in May to take over the defense, despite having been an offensive coach the past 15 seasons. He inherited a unit that returned only two starters from last year's team that allowed an average of just 2 yards per carry.
Waggoner kept the same defensive scheme and terminology as last season to maintain consistency, which allowed younger players to be ready to contribute early. Another key factor has been the return of all-state senior linebacker J.J. Beene — who leads the team in tackles — and the progression of junior lineman Gio Davis, who transferred from East Ridge and has received scholarship offers from Ole Miss and Tennessee in the past two weeks.
An undersized linebacker who plays like a heat-seeking missile on both special teams and defense, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Beene brings an energy his teammates feed off of, and the 6-4, 280-pound Davis, who scored one of the Pirates four defensive touchdowns, has added a swagger that was missing up front.
"I've always played with a chip on my shoulder because of my size," said Beene, who returned a first-quarter kickoff 56 yards to ignite the offense's first scoring drive in last week's 37-7 quarterfinal win at Gordonsville. "Our coaches emphasize playing with energy, so I feel like if I bring that emotion then everybody else will match it.
"Gio is so freakishly strong and aggressive, he's going to get at least a double team on every play, so that frees the rest of us up to make plays. We know the offense is going to get a lot of glory because we've got some great athletes, but I want to let everybody know that we're just as strong on defense. We've got some dogs on that side, too."