By Phillip Williams
PROSPER–The Gilmer Buckeyes ascended to Friday’s state championship wargame by toting up a 35-7 lead at twirling time before weathering an unsettling comeback by the Graham Steers to gore Graham, 35-21, Friday night in the Class 4A Division II state semi-finals.
The Buckeyes (14-1 under new Head Coach Alan Metzel) were thus propelled into a rematch against the only outfit that defeated them this season–the unvanquished Carthage Bulldogs (13-0, including one playoff triumph by forfeit).
Their tilt for the state’s blue ribbon occurs at noon Friday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, the playground of the Dallas Cowboys.
Gilmer will face the daunting dogfight of detonating a deathly dynamo since Carthage bludgeoned the Buckeyes, 42-14, this season after leading 28-0 at intermission. Carthage, last season’s state titleist in Class 4A Division I, took the elevator to the state finale by withering Wimberley, 38-7, Friday eve and has not had a close game all year.
Gilmer will likely have to reprise its ferocious first-half performance against Graham in order to avenge its earlier debacle against the ‘Dogs, inasmuch as the Buckeyes abruptly exhausted their arsenal of ammunition afore the final two quarters Friday night. Fortunately for Gilmer, quarterback Brandon Tennison had hot-footed for two TDs and heaved for two more to incarcerate the Steers in a bullpen they couldn’t escape at Children’s Health Stadium. That was enough to more than offset three TD throws by Graham field general Hunter Lanham (who also hurled three interceptions), and whose team relied largely on workhorse runner Daniel Gilbertson’s landlubbing despite acquiring all its touchdowns by air.
The Buckeyes struck their first scoring salvo on their opening offensive after forcing Graham to punt. Tennison flung a 34-yard TD to star receiver Dylan Fluellen, writing finis to a 77-yard, 10-play hike in which Gilmer overcame a 5-yard penalty.
Jose Hernandez airlifted the first of his five PATs with 7:01 left in the first quarter.
Gilmer’s next tally was a show-stopper as Rohan Fluellen returned a punt 97 yards with 3:08 remaining in the opening quadrant before the Steers’ offense finally staged a scoring stampede.
Taking the kickoff, Graham whistled 64 yards in five plays–all of them runs by Gilbertson before quarterback Lanham suddenly shot a 45-yard TD throw to Tre’ Alveraz.
Chandler Dyer footed the first of his three successful PATs with 50 seconds left in the initial quarter, making it 14-7. The Buckeyes, however, would suffocate the Steers in the second period by 21-0, which proved the eventual difference in the outcome.
Accepting the kickoff after the Graham touchdown, Gilmer stunningly overcame consecutive penalties of 15 and 10 yards during a 64-yard, six-play travelogue to Beulah Land. It concluded with Tennison’s 3-yard keeper with 11:26 left in the second quarter.
Graham launched an aborted trek of its own, being stopped on downs at the Buckeye 20, which soon opened Pandora’s box for the Steers.
Surmounting a 5-yard penalty, Gilmer hastened the 80 yards to TD territory in only five plays, scoring on a wow when Tennison screamed 73 yards with 6:13 left to intermission.
On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, the Steers got branded when Gilmer defender Keke Johnson purloined a pass from Lanham at the Buckeye 36 and returned it to the Graham 49. Gilmer redeemed that one for cash quickly, procuring points on the third play afterward when Tennison unleashed a 49-yard scoring sling to Marshae Spraglin with 4:37 left to music time.
Neither team made another scoring threat before the second half, when Graham was galvanized by its woeful performance up to then, and made a startling turnabout. However, penalties–which were a bugaboo for the Buckeyes in the first two quarters–proved an imposing impediment to Graham in the last two.
Gilmer took the second-half kickoff, got nowhere, and had a punt blocked that gave the Steers the pigskin at the Buckeye 31. Despite being promptly penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct to the 46, Graham made an incursion into the end zone on the fourth play afterward when Lanham zipped a 29-yard TD to Matthew Lindquist with 9:49 left in the third period.
The Steers at one point afterward reached the Buckeye 22, but a flurry of penalties drove them backwards before Dylan Fluellen filched a Lanham pass in the Gilmer end zone.
From there, the Bucks hoofed their way to the Graham 26 before a 15-yard Gilmer penalty eventually helped force a punt to the Steers’ 4-yard-line on the final quarter’s first play.
Unfazed by their undesirable field position and 21-point deficit, the Steers, aided by a successful fake punt at one point, proceeded to stage a 96-yard, 13-play cattle drive to TD Town, overcoming a 5-yard penalty en route. Lanham shot the 24-yard TD to Lindquist with 7:25 left and suddenly, what had appeared to be a route in the making turned suspenseful.
And the Buckeyes probably really became queasy when Rohan Fluellen soon afterward caught a Tennison pass, only to disgorge a fumble to Graham’s Zach Martin at the Steers’ 38-yard-line.
Overcoming two 5-yard penalties along the way, and converting a fourth-down play, Graham managed to bop to the Buckeye 20, only to have Lanham throw incomplete on fourth down with 3:26 remaining.
Gilmer went three-and-out, punted only 20 yards to its 33, and Graham still had a sliver of a chance. But on the fourth play afterward, Lanham threw incomplete on fourth down from the 26 with 1:34 left.
Gilmer punted yet again to its 43 and the Steers reached the 34 before Buckeye Jaydon Griffin swiped another Lanham aerial in the end zone with 14 seconds left, snuffing Graham’s miniscule remaining hopes.
Thus on this night, the Steers had cobbled together a commendable comeback–but were nonetheless made into hamburger.