HICKORY — A furious second-half rally wasn’t enough to overcome a disastrous first half as the Freedom football team suffered a stunning loss on the road to Hickory on Friday, 23-22.
The Patriots were humbled out of the gate by the previously 1-5 Hickory squad, falling behind 20-0 by the intermission as the Red Tornadoes cashed in with short Cody Young touchdowns to cap each of their first three drives.
Those short scores were set up by a surgical HHS passing attack as QB Jason Martin, in his return from an injury, took advantage of soft coverage by the Freedom secondary to finish 15 of 19 for 177 yards before exiting the game late with another ailment.
And to make matters worse, the Patriots lost their own senior QB, Jayden Birchfield, to a back injury at halftime and he didn’t return.
It was Freedom’s first loss to Hickory since 2009, its first in the current Northwestern 3A/4A Conference alignment to a team other than Watauga or Alexander Central and one of the most unexpected losses for the program this decade.
It puts a major damper on the Patriots’ league title hopes — and possibly even their playoff prospects — with matchups versus the Cougars this coming week and against the Pioneers on Nov. 1 still to come.
With Birchfield out, freshman backup Ty Little was forced into action and acquitted himself well enough on the team’s first three drives out of the break as the Patriots’ running game came alive.
The Patriots marched down the field twice in the third quarter, leading to short TD runs for Mekhi Spates (8-30) and Cam Silvers, before Chase Young (16-132) broke free from 36 yards out in the fourth quarter and added a two-point conversion run to set the final margin.
But a 36-yard field goal by Ben Boston on the Hickory drive immediately preceding Freedom’s final TD was the difference-maker. After a first-down sack by Dayonte Roddy, a pre-snap HHS penalty and a no-gain play on second down, Martin found Cody Young for 19 yards on third-and-22 and Tristan Rankin for 18 yards on fourth-and-3 to set up Boston’s uprights-splitter.
After the Chase Young TD, Freedom’s next drive ended with a Little fumble as Hickory turned up the wick on its pass rush, and the Patriots’ last-gasp effort, which covered 49 yards in 13 plays, ended with an interception with just 8 seconds left to play.
The upset loss came despite the fact the Patriots (4-3, 1-1) outgained Hickory 179-6 on the ground counting sacks and had three more first downs.
But breakdowns on pass defense, five sacks allowed and 12 penalties for 113 yards were costly.
FHS coach Luke Little said looking past the Red Tornadoes to opponents with more wins might have been to blame for the Patriots’ no-show first half.
“I thought we didn’t show up ready tonight,” Little said. “I guess we overlooked them with their record. … We blocked better in the second half and we took care of the ball. … We just played a lot sharper in the second half. We don’t have but 28 players, and we count on every one of them. We expect backups to come in and do well.
“It was great, especially when we got behind by three touchdowns, to still be able to run the ball and get back in it. … When I first got to Freedom, these kids would have laid down. A 20-0 lead would have turned into 40-0. I told them I’m proud of them because they fought with every ounce that they had.”
Birchfield and Little combined for 82 yards through the air and Desmond Caldwell (4-48) was the team’s top receiver in a normally potent passing attack.
Noah English had a monster individual performance for the Freedom defense, notching 1½ sacks and five additional stops in the backfield as part of a 10-tackle night. Roddy, Caldwell and Curt Young (½ sack) had additional tackles for loss. Damien Dula had seven tackles, Birchfield made six stops, Sacred Baylor broke up a pass and Kevin Hover had a QB hurry.
Justin Epley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-432-8943.