By Lee Noles
MONROE – The Piedmont football program has been well known as a running team over the last several years. The Panthers proved once again why during their 47-9 road win over Union Academy on Aug. 31 that gave them their first victory of the season and sent the Cardinals sputtering after consecutive blowout losses.
Piedmont gashed the Cardinals all night and rushed for a season-high 518 yards. Connor Purser and Troy Hagin combined for five touchdowns on the ground to pave the way for the easy win after the Panthers struggled with blowout losses to Central Cabarrus (42-9) and Porter Ridge (48-6) to open the season.
Panther coach Luke Hyatt said his team focused more in practice this week on running the football against the Cardinals after Piedmont dropped its first two games of the season.
“We just got back to our roots,” he said. “We have to give credit to our offensive line … We still have a ways to go, but we are happy.”
Hagin got the Panthers on the board in the opening series when the junior sprinted up the middle for a 35-yard touchdown. The drive took nearly three minutes off the clock and covered 70 yards with all six plays coming on the ground.
The Cardinals responded on their opening series when their 13-play drive was capped by senior kicker
Carson Green’s 26-yard field goal.
Purser gave the Panthers a 10-point lead moments later when the junior made a spin to the right before sprinting past the enclosing Cardinal defense for a 19-yard touchdown run.
After averaging just 45 yards on the ground in the previous two Panther losses, Hagin finished with a game-high 170 rushing yards on 15 carries against the Cardinals. Purser added 125 yards on 18 carries and Branson Shillingburg was the third Panther to go over 100 yards on the ground as the senior carried just three times but gained 106 yards including a 56-yard scamper.
“They know what to expect, and they have been doing it for so long,” Hyatt said of his backfield. “They know when to cut back or spin.
“They have bought in to what we have been doing.”
The Panthers added to their advantage right before the half when Purser scored on a 1-yard run after senior receiver Austin Merritt hauled in a 22-yard pass from quarterback Henry Saunders with Merritt carrying several would-be tacklers to the Cardinal goal line on the play.
Hyatt said Purser’s touchdown right before half gave the Panthers all the breathing room they needed.
“It goes back to being comfortable with what we are doing,” he said. “We are still struggling with the football, but I thought that was a big drive, and when we got into the endzone, we felt pretty good about our chances.”
Piedmont kept the offensive outburst going in the second half when Hagin bounced off several defenders on his way to a 23-yard touchdown. He added a 50-yard scoring run at the start of the fourth quarter before Brance Westbrooks and Clint Danielson each found the end zone for the Panthers later in the second half.
Union Academy had its chances on several occasions, but the Cardinals were turned away on three series after they drove the ball inside the Panther 10-yard line.
“Our kids did a real good job of hunkering down when it was time to hunker down,” s Hyatt said. “It was good to see what our defense could do with their back against the wall … We never gave up the big home run.”
Isaac King finally broke through for the Cardinals when the sophomore running back took a fourth-quarter kickoff for an 89-yard touchdown.
King had a great day running the ball, finishing with 153 yards on 13 carries. Quarterback Hayden Gosnell completed 13-of-29 passes for 149 yards, and star junior receiver Derek Young Jr. hauled in seven passes for 83 yards.
Defensively, Union Academy was worn down by the relentless Piedmont ground attack that carried the ball 46 times in the win. Chris Morgan led the defensive effort with 15 tackles while Young and Dylan Brooks added nine apiece.
Union Academy has now been outscored 93-9 in their last two games with back-to-back losses to Piedmont and Metrolina Christian.
The Cardinals are on a bye Sept. 7, but will look to bounce back when they travel to Northside on Sept. 14. The Knights are 2-1 this season, but the Cardinals won the game between the teams 28-0 last season.
Meanwhile, the Panthers will try to build off their win when they travel to Forest Hills on Sept. 7.
“A win makes everyone feel good,” Hyatt said. “A win could also hurt too, because a missed assignment or a penalty may not seem as big. But a win feels really good right now. It gives us a little momentum going into the next game.”