Statement victories don't usually come early in the season. They come later in the season, once a team has matured and shored up its weaknesses.
However, the Brookstone Cougars didn't wait until later in their season to make a statement, as they used a strong ground game and some timely passes to post a 42-34 win over Mt. Pisgah Christian in the Battleground Classic Saturday at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium in both teams' season opener.
"I think the thing I'm proudest of is the way this team responded to adversity in the second half," Brookstone coach Brad Dehem said. "You're always going to make mistakes in the season opener -- and we did that -- but we were able to overcome them and beat a good team."
Mt. Pisgah finished last season 12-1 and advanced to the semifinals of the Class A-private state playoffs, while Brookstone struggled to a 6-5 season that ended in the first round of the playoffs.
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But Saturday it was Brookstone that used a one-two punch of juniors Sam Ndem and Prather Hudson to control the tempo of the game offensively. Hudson did most of the heavy lifting in the first half, gaining 81 yards on 13 first-half carries, and Ndem did it in the second half, piling up 15 carries for 132 yards and three touchdowns in the final two quarters.
The game started inauspiciously for Brookstone (1-0), as Ndem fumbled on the Cougars' third play from scrimmage and one play later, Mt. Pisgah got a 31-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Winchester to Oz Dixon to put the Patriots up 6-0 just 1:35 into the game.
However, the Cougars responded with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that was finished off by a 4-yard touchdown run by Ndem -- the first of his four for the game -- and Brookstone took a 7-6 lead midway through the first period.
The lead grew to 9-6 after the Patriots had a snap go out the back of the end zone and following a 24-yard touchdown pass from Jay Roberts to Kordell Braxton on a fourth-and-8, Brookstone was up 16-6 with 7:14 to go before halftime.
After a short punt gave the Cougars the ball on their 47, they got a 36-yard touchdown pass from Roberts to Grant Davidson and Brookstone held a 23-12 lead at the break.
Roberts was 11-for-17 for 133 yards and two touchdowns in the game, hooking up with Davidson four times for a total of 64 yards.
"It's hard to believe (Roberts) is just a sophomore, but he really did a good job of managing the game for us," Dehem said. "He made some throws when we needed him to, especially on third down."
Brookstone forced Mt. Pisgah to punt on its opening possession of the second half and the Cougars drove again, this time taking 12 plays to cover 68 yards and Ndem scored on an 8-yard run to put Brookstone up 29-12 with 4:24 remaining in the third quarter. A 3-yard touchdown run by the Patriots' Justin Gilvin and a 30-yard pass from Winchester to Ben Miller following a Brookstone turnover got Mt. Pisgah back to within 29-26 early in the fourth quarter and the momentum seemed to be in the Patriots' corner.
That was when Ndem showed his stuff again, taking a handoff on the Cougars' next play and racing 67 yards for a touchdown to stretch Brookstone's lead back out to 35-26. The Cougars recovered the subsequent kickoff and took another eight plays to go 45 yards before Ndem polished it off with a 2-yard touchdown run to make it 42-26 Brookstone with 7:25 remaining.
Mt. Pisgah made one last push, as Nick Piccapietra scored on a 1-yard run with 3:35 to get the Patriots back to within 42-34 with 3:09 still on the clock. However, on Brookstone's next possession, Ndem carried the ball five straight times for a total 24 yards and the Cougars were able to run out the clock.
Ndem finished with 165 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries and Hudson pitched in 134 yards on 20 carries of his own and Brookstone cracked the 400-yard mark for total offense in the game.
"Those guys would be the first to tell you those kinds of yards start with the guys up front," Dehem.
"Each of them had big plays and had mistakes, but they did what they needed to do when we needed them to do it. I can't say enough about their effort and I really think that's a testament to our line."
Saturday at Memorial Stadium
Mt. Pisgah Christian 6 6 6 16--34
Brookstone 9 14 6 13--42
MP - Oz Dixon 31 pass from Aaron Winchester (Kick failed), 10:25.
B - Sam Ndem 4 run (Matt Taich kick), 5:29.
B - Safety (Snap out of end zone), 3:40.
B - Kordell Braxton 24 pass from Jay Roberts (Taich kick), 7:14.
B - Grant Davidson 36 pass from Roberts (Taich kick), 3:35.
MP - Winchester 8 run (Run failed), 1:06.
B - Ndem 8 run (Kick blocked), 4:24.
MP - Justin Gilvin 3 run (Pass failed), 1:36.
MP - Ben Miller 30 pass from Winchester (Miller pass from Winchester), 11:47.
B - Ndem 67 run (Kick failed), 11:31.
B - Ndem 2 run (Taich kick), 7:23.
MP - Nick Piccapietra 1 run (Connor Richey pass from Winchester), 3:09.
Records: Brookstone 1-0, Mt. Pisgah Christian 0-1. Next: Mt. Pisgah Christian at Rabun County Sept. 5, Brookstone vs. Columbus (at Kinnett) Sept. 5.