Ja’Quis Williams understood what was happening.
With Pearl-Cohn’s do-it-all star Barion Brown out due to an ankle injury, in addition to three injured starting offensive linemen, the Firebirds struggled mightily at times Friday.
The offense had trouble moving the ball and at one point, Pearl-Cohn burned a timeout as it struggled to get 11 players on the field for a punt.
“I just had to get the team back rolling. We were in a drought, we needed momentum,” Williams said.
The sophomore defensive back delivered big, securing two interceptions in the fourth quarter — one returned for a touchdown — as the Firebirds scored three unanswered in the final eight minutes for a 28-0 victory over Greenbrier.
The final score is deceiving.
Pearl-Cohn led just 7-0 four minutes into the fourth quarter and was not only without Brown, but also running back Brandon Connard, center Tyler Gollotte, right tackle Jarren Jackson and left guard Jayden Jackson.
In all, five starters were missing on both sides of the ball.
The Firebirds (8-1, 5-1) are still trying to secure second place in Region 5-4A, but head coach Tony Brunetti said he wasn’t concerned in the final period.
“No, no,” he said. “You’re going to have games like this. When your starting center, your starting guard, your starting tackle are out … it affects you in a lot of ways. But I believe in my defense, I believe in my young guys and every time someone gets injured someone steps up. The offense needed (the defense) tonight and we stepped up.”
Pearl-Cohn recorded four sacks and three forced turnovers, with two interceptions from Williams and another from Keshawn Johnson.
“A lot of players are out right now. We had a slow start. (But) it’s next man up,” Williams said.
Pearl-Cohn has state title aspirations in Class 4A, but those hopes would dim without a player like Brown, a four-star prospect and state champion sprinter who has befuddled opponents while playing quarterback, receiver and running back.
Brunetti said he won’t play Brown until his sprained ankle is fully healed, and added that he is still just “55-60% healthy” and hasn’t been able to practice.
“He’s been limping for two weeks now,” Brunetti said. “I cannot afford to not have him down the stretch. He knows that. Nothing is broken, but it’s a severe sprain that’s causing a lot of problems … His longevity and career is more important to me than anything.”
Brunetti expects to get his starting offensive linemen back in two weeks. The team has a bye before an Oct. 29 showdown against Montgomery Central, which will help determine second place in the region.
In the meantime, the Firebirds did enough to keep winning.
Keshawn Tarleton finished 8-of-10 passing for 139 yards and two touchdowns. His 11-yard TD throw to D’Arious Reed in the second quarter gave the Firebirds a 7-0 lead.
In the fourth quarter, Justin Villa took a short pass 18 yards to the end zone where he flipped end-over-end through a tackle to make it 14-0 Pearl-Cohn with 7:43 left.
Williams’ first interception came on the next series, setting up a short scoring drive that put Pearl-Cohn up 21-0. He followed that by taking an interception to the end zone from just inside midfield to make it 28-0.
Jayden Robinson led the Firebirds with 55 yards rushing and a touchdown.
Greenbrier (3-5, 3-3) was searching for back-to-back wins for the first time this season. Quarterback Nolan Carson and receiver Derek Taylor — a three-star prospect with scholarship offers from Michigan State and Marshall — connected several times but the Bobcats only reached the red zone once.
Pearl-Cohn celebrated a long awaited return to its home stadium after recent renovations were completed, giving players, its band and cheerleaders the pageantry of a real home game for the first time this season.
Was it as good as expected?
“I don’t know,” Brunetti joked, “I think we play better on the road.”
Pearl-Cohn 28, Greenbrier 0
G 0 0 0 0—0
P 0 7 21 28—0
P - D’Arious Reed 11 pass from Keshawn Tarleton (6:46) Kamil Tanas kick
P - Justin Villa 18 pass from Tarleton (7:43) Tanas kick
P - Jayden Robinson 13 run (6:40) Tanas kick
P - Ja’Quis Williams 44 interception return (1:16) Tanas kick