Last year, Pike Road faced its biggest challenge in a region matchup with St. James and was physically dominated from the opening whistle.

This season, the Patriots took huge strides in their final year as a Class 3A program, taking a big step toward the Region 3 title with an impressive 35-24 win over the Trojans at Carlisle Field on Friday night.

“Hats off to St. James and the job Coach (Jimmy) Perry has done,” Pike Road coach Patrick Browning said. “They do an amazing job, year in, year out. This was a really good high school football game. Our guys, what they did, is what they did not do last year. When adversity hit, they responded. I can’t be more proud of these guys for doing that.”

In a showdown between undefeated programs, the second-year Patriots avenged last year’s humiliating 28-0 loss to the Trojans by scoring the game’s final two touchdowns on Friday to improve to 7-0 and hand the Trojans their first loss of the season.

“Last year, it was probably our biggest game as well,” noted Pike Road receiver Bryce Kelly. “We got smacked. They definitely dominated us in that game so we’ve been thinking about this game for a long time. We both had good records going into that game and they beat us, so this year we came out with a lot more fire and executed pretty well.”

Not in the beginning. Pike Road quarterback Baron Brack was sacked twice on the Patriots’ possession, the final sack a bone-jarring, fumble-causing hit by Andrew Sadie that was recovered by Barr Armistead. The Trojans then marched 61 yards, all on the ground, to a Drew Fett touchdown, displaying a physical style of old-school football that brought back memories of the 2018 meeting.

St. James would display that same style in a 17-play drive that consumed nearly nine minutes off the clock to open the second half with a touchdown for a 24-21 lead.

“We kept missing tackles early,” Browning noted. “It was one guy here, one guy there. We knew if we ever finally put the whole piece together, we were going to be fine. The one (roughing the punter) penalty coming out of the gate at halftime, we had them off the field. We left our defense out there too long. But, again, they do a great job. It was a back-and-forth game and at the end of the day we made more plays.”

Those plays were long pass plays that swung the momentum – and the outcome – to the Patriots, something that was not part of the original game plan.

“We really thought we were going to run it, run it, run it and take shots every now and then,” Brack said. “We didn’t think it was going to be like Headland where we would be able to throw it so much but it worked out for the best and I’m happy with it.”

Against Headland, which played a defensive scheme that blitzed safeties, Brack didn’t often have time to search the field for receivers and while he threw for 234 yards and four touchdowns, his nine incompletions were reflective of a harassed quarterback.

St. James came with the same idea, limiting running back Quinshon Judkins to a relatively quiet 60 yards on 16 carries (with nearly half of that coming in the fourth quarter) and daring Brack to prove his efficiency.

He did. Starting with a 15-yard touchdown throw to Judkins on a third-and-10 play late in the first quarter, Brack completed 8 of 11 passes over the next two quarters for 165 yards and three touchdowns.

“Our quarterback dominated tonight,” Kelly said. “That was probably the best game he’s had all season and I’ve got to give it to Blake, too, catching two touchdowns and getting all those jump balls was amazing.”

Pike Road rallied from the third-quarter deficit with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Blake Durham and a 20-yard run by Brack that finished off the Trojans. Durham also had another catch at the goal line in the second quarter, but fell at the 1-yard line, leaving Judkins to score on the next play.

“Our game plan was to pound, pound, pound and take a shot,” Durham said, “but we had to make an adjustment because they came out in a different defense.”

Brack survived the two early sacks and the fumble with his best performance since transferring from Fort Dale Academy over the summer. The senior was 12 of 18 for 249 yards and three touchdowns with five of his completions covering 30 yards or more.

“You give a guy time to throw, he can throw it down there 50 or 60 yards, it’s hard to cover that,” Perry said. “You’ve got to get more pressure on the quarterback.”

St. James countered with its run-oriented attack that resulted in scores on three of its first six possessions, running the ball 44 times in 48 plays. Even when Pike Road defenders knew what was coming from St. James, they were usually powerless to stop it until the Trojans wore down at the end of the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, the Trojans had the ball for 4:19 of the final 12 minutes, unable to stop Pike Road and unable to generate any offense.

“When we were halfway fresh, we were good,” Perry said, “but we’re playing seven or eight kids both ways and they’re playing none. We knew the heat and the fatigue factor would come into effect. I thought our kids gave great effort and I wouldn’t swap one of mine for 50 of them.”

St. James’ Austin Gavin led all rushers with 73 yards on 23 carries, but had just four carries for eight yards in the second half. Pike Road, which will be reclassified in a larger classification nest season, beat the Trojans in their final meeting by relying on its superior depth to flex its muscle and physically dominate its opponent in the second half.

“I knew coming in here it was a big rivalry,” Brack said. “They kind of embarrassed us last year and for 365 days it’s been nothing but working toward this game, trying to get better and better.

“I feel like we still have a long way to go. We’ve come a long way but there’s so much more to improve on for us to be where we want to be.”

Defensively, Armistead led the Trojans with nine tackles, including two for loss, a sack and a fumble recovery. Carlos Carter, Corbin Grant and Jaylan Jarrett all had seven tackles each to lead the Patriots.

Pike Road (7-0) improved to 4-0 in region play and returns home to play Dadeville on Friday. St. James (5-1) dropped to 3-1 in region play and remains home against Beulah next week.

“We’ve got to take it one week at a time,” Kelly said. “Forget this game and go into next week, trying to go 1-0.”

The key for the Patriots is to put the St. James behind them and concentrate on their remaining region games against Dadeville, Montgomery Academy and Beulah, all at home. That might not be easy for a Pike Road team that had been thinking about one game for the last year.

“We lost badly last year and we just had a point to prove this year because all the doubters were doubting us,” Durham said. “We just had to come out here and make a statement.”