Briarwood holds off Pelham with strong second half defense

Published 10:53 pm Friday, September 15, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

NORTH SHELBY – Both the Briarwood Christian Lions and Pelham Panthers threw their best shots on the field, but in the end, it was the adjustments between the rounds which made the difference.

Briarwood made second half adjustments on defense to hold Pelham scoreless after the break as the Lions offense found their stride and earned a 28-21 win in their matchup on Friday, Sept. 15 thanks to crucial late defensive stops.

“Pelham is really good,” Briarwood coach Matthew Forester said. “You know they’ll be in the playoff mix, and so getting a leg up on them is huge. And then at the same time, we’re going into a bye week, and it’s a whole lot better to go into bye week with a win than a loss. We’re going to take that in, we’re going to use this momentum to go forward. It should be a lot of fun.”

Briarwood showed its defense early with a three-and-out hold on Pelham’s opening drive, and then the Lions got moving on the offensive side as well.

A roughing the passer penalty got Briarwood inside the red zone, and then an offside from a hard count on the ensuing play moved the Lions up even further. Eventually, Josh Thompson found John Paul Harbor for a short receiving score on the edge to put the Lions up 6-0 early in the first.

Pelham ran into some more penalty trouble on the following drive as a 60-yard touchdown pass to CJ Tolbert was called back for an illegal man downfield, but Clayton Mains found Brock Isbell for a 45-yard gain to make part of it back up.

Mains eventually found a man up the middle for a 14-yard score to go up 7-6 as the quarter drew to a close.

On the next Lions drive, Thompson got moving quickly, and a key 26-yard pass to Caleb Keller put Briarwood in solid field position. From there, Briarwood kept moving ever so closer to scoring, and a Will Clark run from the 6-yard line got the Lions on the 1.

From there, Cooper Higgins punched in a touchdown run, but the Lions’ extra point was blocked, making the score just 12-7 early in the second quarter.

Pelham kept on moving on offense despite Briarwood’s best efforts. Eventually, Mains struck with a big throw to Tolbert again, but this one was for a 41-yard touchdown to put the Panthers up 14-12 midway through the quarter.

Briarwood ate up most of the rest of the second quarter with a 70-yard drive that saw Thompson get into the red zone on a 20-yard throw to Keller. Immediately afterwards, Thompson got some solid blocking and ran in for a 15-yard touchdown run to regain the lead.

The Lions led 18-14 after that score with less than two minutes left in the half, but Mains hit Tolbert on another wide-open deep ball early in the drive for a 75-yard touchdown. Tolbert’s second touchdown catch of the half put the Panthers up 21-18 going into the break.

Going into the locker room, Forester knew that Briarwood needed to adjust its pass defense and the kicking game quickly to prevent more deep throws in the second half.

“We knew Clayton Mains was a really good player,” Forester said. “We knew they had some explosive receivers and we knew that we needed to protect the deep ball. We obviously didn’t do that well in the first half, but it’s great when you’ve got guys who will respond to coaching will do what they’re coached. And so, the second half, the defensive line was dominant and we did really good, and it was a lot of fun.”

That started on the defense’s first drive of the half After a Briarwood punt to open the half, Mains picked up a third down on his feet, but after that, the Lions defense roared to life.

Brooks Allred covered a deep shot on second down, then on fourth down, Andrew Kassouf grabbed a sack to force the turnover on downs with six minutes left in the third.

Briarwood immediately capitalized on the midfield positioning with a 49-yard touchdown from Thompson to Sawyer Click, which gave the Lions a 25-21 lead after converting the extra point.

Pelham went backwards on its next drive thanks to second and third down sacks, the latter from Garrett Witherington to force a Panthers punt.

After the ensuing punt went short, the Lions looked like they would stall out in Panthers territory, but a 4th-and-10 conversion from Thompson to Keller for 21 yards saved the drive as the two kept their connection alive.

Briarwood only managed a 39-yard field goal from Garrett Heinnemann, but the three points gave Briarwood a 28-21 lead to go up one score early in the fourth quarter.

From there, Pelham had two more chances to score, but Briarwood matched Mains and the offense’s best shots throughout the final quarter.

In the first of their two drives with ten minutes to go, Pelham converted a 4th-and-1 on a penalty, but the Lions defense met Mains on a third down run later in the drive to force a punt.

On Pelham’s final drive of the game with just under five minutes left, the Panthers earned two fourth down conversions to stay alive, including a pass from Mains to Will Felton.

However, the third time proved to be the charm thanks to Brooks Travis and multiple other Lions defenders’ effort on a pass up the middle downfield, and that turnover on downs with under a minute left sealed the deal on a 28-21 Briarwood win.

Forester complimented the entire defense after the game for stepping up, especially when faced with Pelham coach Mike Vickery’s fourth-down playcalling.

“I thought our four front guys, Luke Dickinson, Max Luster, Andrew Kassouf and Garrett Witherington did an amazing job controlling the line of scrimmage, forcing them into the passing game,” Forester said. “Coach Vickery had some really good stuff in there. They get their fourth downs, but at the same time, we’re trusting the DBs to do their job and the defensive line got a ton of pressure.”

Forester also said that the offense has been responding well to coaching as each of the players have grown into their role as the season goes on.

“Josh has done an amazing job,” Forester said. He’s really taking command and control, and then we’ve had other guys really accept their roles and accept them really well. Will Clark’s done a great job, so has Cooper Higgins. So, we’ve got guys, and then they’re committed to being coached hard and responding to coaching. It’s fun to watch coach Johnson, coach Tatum, coach Kerley just really go to town coaching them hard, and these guys are responding to it, so I’m proud of them.”

Thompson threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns off an efficient 17-for-21 passing. Click was his top target with eight receptions, 94 yards and a touchdown, and Keller had four catches, 66 yards and a touchdown of his own.

For Pelham, Mains had another solid day with 256 passing yards and three touchdowns while going 18-for-28. Tolbert impressed with his five catches for 171 yards and two touchdowns, and Isbell had six catches for 43 yards and a touchdown.

Overall, Pelham edged out Briarwood with 313 yards of total offense versus the Lions’ 286, but it was Briarwood who edged out the Panthers on the scoreboard when time expired.

Briarwood enters its bye week at 2-2 before its showdown with the Lions’ neighbor along 119, Oak Mountain, on Sept. 29. As for Pelham, the 2-1 Panthers enter a crucial rivalry game of their own against Helena at home on Sept. 22.