Etowah’s Corey Thomas fights for yardage during the Blue Devils’ 31-0 loss to Briarwood Christian in the Class 5A state quarterfinals last on Nov. 24) at in Birmingham. (Al.com/ Butch Dill)
By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Class 5A, No. 5 Etowah’s best season in nearly two decades ended with a 31-0 loss to No. 1 Briarwood Christian in the state quarterfinals last Friday (Nov. 24) at Lions Pride Stadium in Birmingham.
The Blue Devil offense never found a rhythm as the Lions jumped out to an early lead, and the Briarwood passing attack proved to be too much for Etowah to handle.
Etowah went three-and-out on its opening drive and the Lions started out with great field position. Briarwood quarterback Michael Hiers found receiver Noah Whatley wide open down the seam on the third play of the drive for a 32-yard touchdown, and the Lions took an early 7-0 lead over the Blue Devils with 8:43 left in the first quarter.
After another Etowah punt, the Lions took over with good field position again on their own 42-yard line. Hiers was intercepted by Etowah defensive back Emil Smith, however, and the Blue Devils took over on their own 38.
But the Briarwood defense forced another three-and-out, and the offense quickly went to work again through the air. Hiers found receiver Carson Eddy for a 39-yard gain to move the ball inside the Etowah 10, but the Blue Devil defense made a stand and forced a field goal. Noah Nall connected on the 23-yard attempt to give the Lions a 10-0 lead with 1:47 remaining in the opening frame.
The Lions intercepted an Etowah pass on the ensuing drive, and Hiers found receiver Luke Prewett for an 18-yard touchdown two plays later to extend the lead to 17-0 early in the second quarter.
Etowah’s next series was more productive as they moved the ball into Briarwood territory, but the Lions made a stop on fourth-and-4 to regain possession. However, the Blue Devil defense forced another turnover as Hiers fumbled, and Etowah took over on the Briarwood 40-yard line.
The Blue Devils marched down the field on an 11-play drive before the half and made it down to the Briarwood 4 before they were forced to settle for a field goal attempt with three seconds remaining until halftime. But the Lions blocked the 21-yard field goal attempt and took a 17-0 lead into the locker room.
Etowah coach Drew Noles said the blocked field goal changed the complexion of the game.
“The blocked kick right before the half was really a big momentum change,” Noles said. “You go from a two-score game to a three-score game. But they do a good job at blocking kicks. They’ve blocked a lot of kicks all year.”
Despite the three-score deficit, the Blue Devil defense dominated in the third quarter, as Briarwood didn’t gain on a first down on its first three drives of the second half. But the Etowah offense continued to struggle.
The Blue Devils went three-and-out on their first drive, fumbled on their second and punted after only four plays on their third series of the quarter. The Etowah defense began to wear down entering the final quarter, however, and Carson Eddy scored from five yards out on the first play of the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 24-0.
After another Etowah three-and-out, the Lions put the game away on a quick four-play drive capped off by a 28-yard touchdown run by J.R. Tran-Reno. Briarwood ran the clock out on its next drive to secure the 31-0 win.
Noles said penalties hurt his team during the game and halted the flow of the offense. He also said the absence of offense lineman Seth Lowry, who was hurt in last week’s win over Brooks, was hard for his offense to overcome.
“Penalties extend drives, and that’s something we didn’t need to have in this kind of game,” Noles said. “They take advantage of those things. It felt like we never did get any kind of flow. (Briarwood hasn’t) given up any points all year.
“We were missing Seth tonight, and that really made a big difference. He’s a great lineman for us. But we have no excuses. (Briarwood) had a great team.”
Senior running back Cory Thomas led the Blue Devils with 90 yards rushing on 14 carries. Caleb Horton rushed for 70 yards on 18 carries, while Emil Smith had four catches on the night.
Briarwood outgained the Blue Devils 300-182 despite struggling to find success on the ground. Hiers completed 11 of 18 passes for 239 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Eddy caught five passes for 111 yards and rushed for a touchdown, while Tran-Reno caught three passes for 55 yards.
The Lions improved to 13-0 on the season and advanced to the semifinals to take on St. Clair County next Friday, Dec. 1.
Etowah finished the year at 11-2, which is the most wins for the program since 1999. Noles credited his senior class for helping the team advance this far into the postseason.
“What a great group of seniors,” he said. “We lost 23 seniors last year and this was kind of supposed to be a rebuilding year for us, and these guys have come in and just done a great job. They’re quiet leaders, and we’re proud of them, and they’re going to do a great job in the future. There’s no doubt and we’re excited about the future for these guys.”