By Phillip Williams
ARLINGTON–Beset by fatal follies in the kicking game, the lethal legs of the opposing quarterback, a debilitating defense, and a passel of penalties, the Gilmer Buckeyes faltered for the second straight season in the Class 4A Division II state championship wargame Friday as the unvanquished China Spring Cougars gashed Gilmer 31-7, to win the state blue ribbon at AT&T Stadium.
While several observers thought a blocked field goal, which China Spring defender Gabe Watkins returned 86 yards for a TD on the first half’s final play, was the coup de grace, that proved far from the lone factor in the outcome. Gilmer trailed only 14-7 at twirling time, but official statistics showed landlubbing Cougar quarterback Major Bowden delivered the pigskin a remarkable 34 times for three TDs and a net 191 yards, while his defensive teammates choked off Gilmer’s normally volcanic attack, holding it to only one first down in the final two quarters and a net 226 total yards for the game.
Not to mention the winners outscored their foes 17-0 in the second half.
In addition, the Buckeyes held the ball for the first 7:06 of the fray, only to have kicker Jose Hernandez’s 27-yard field goal attempt conk the left upright with 4:54 left in the first quarter. Gilmer would rebound to take a 7-0 lead in the second period, only to see the Cougars then tally all of the game’s 31 other points as the Buckeyes, who drew only one 5-yard penalty before intermission, incurred seven for 45 yards afterward.
Remarkably, neither side committed a turnover, and the Cougars had no penalties the entire game. (Infractions plagued the Buckeyes in several games this year, but the team normally overcame them).
The game’s official stats didn’t seem to totally reflect the one-sided nature of the score. While China Spring had a 21-13 advantage in first downs (including 13 to Gilmer’s one after halftime), the Cougars only had 42 more yards’ offense for the day and Gilmer had a staggering advantage in passing yards–136 to 28.
Buckeye quarterback Brandon Tennison went 18-for-34–but only 5-of-13 for 32 yards after Band Time, while Bowden threw only 11 times all day, completing eight.
The team rushing totals, however, told much of the tale–240-90 in China Spring’s favor. Besides Bowden’s massive amount, teammate Isaiah Williams–seemingly the only other real weapon among the Cougars’ skill positions–collected 61 yards on 13 hauls, while also receiving 7 passes for 23 yards.
In the post-game press conference, a Cougar player revealed that his team had also put double coverage on star Gilmer receiver Rohan Fluellen, who’d caught nine passes for 185 yards the prior week against Celina. Fluellen nabbed six this time, but for only 44 yards, while able teammate Parker Gilow hauled in five for 71 yards, official stats showed.
Second-year Head Coach Alan Metzel’s Buckeyes thus bade the season farewell at 14-2, while Coach Brian Bell’s Cougars finished 16-0. Metzel has a 28-4 record, with the other three losses all coming to Carthage, who bloodied the Buckeyes 70-14 in last year’s state title game and twice in regular season contests before the Cougars finally subdued that perennial powerhouse 27-17 in this year’s playoffs.
After Hernandez’s failed first-quarter field goal, the Cougars also missed a three-pointer on their opening possession as Thomas Barr kicked short on a 48-yard try and Fluellen returned the ball from the end zone to the Gilmer 28 with 11:09 left in the second period.
The teams exchanged punts, and Gilmer launched its lone scoring offensive, ingesting 61 yards in six plays. Runner Ashton Haynes carted the pigskin on the last four, covering 43 yards, and procuring the TD on a 2-yard hop.
Hernandez airlifted the PAT with 6:36 left to the break. Nobody knew it, but Gilmer was done scoring for the day as Haynes, who ingested 65 yards on nine hops in the first half, was held to two yards on three carries afterward.
After Gilmer’s TD, China Spring took the kickoff and promptly devoured 61 yards in 10 plays for its opening touchdown on Bowden’s 3-yard hop, the last of his four straight runs that covered 36 yards on this possession. Barr banged the first of his four successful PATs with 2:03 left to music time.
The Buckeyes promptly took the kickoff and, in 11 plays, plodded 62 yards to the Cougar 5. With only six seconds left to halftime, Metzel opted to have Hernandez try a 22-yard field goal, resulting in the Big Bang from which the Buckeyes never recovered–the blocked kick for a TD.
Asked in the post-game press conference if he thought this was the knockout blow, Metzel said “I didn’t feel like at halftime it was done.” He said he considered running a pass with a fade route instead of opting for the kick, but that with only six ticks left on the clock (and no time outs remaining), the time element was a “fine line.”
The Cougars proceeded to almost totally control the final two periods. They took the opening kickoff and, in nine plays which began with Bowden’s 32-yard rumble, rolled from their 33 to the Buckeye 5 before Barr clanged a 22-yard field goal with 7:25 left in the third.
Gilmer, only behind 17-7, then lapsed into its penalty plague, drawing three for 20 yards on its next possession before punting. The Buckeyes also forced a punt, but in what may well have been the game’s turning point, ceded the ball when Haynes was stopped for a 2-yard loss at the 50 on a 4th-and-1 play.
That came with 51 seconds left in the third. The Cougars, abetted by a 5-yard penalty, would go from there to Beulah Land in nine plays when Bowden whizzed 14 yards up the middle with 8:25 left in the game.
Gilmer had to surrender the pigskin on downs at its 42 on its next thrust, going four-and-out and leading to the victors’ final run to paradise. Bolstered by two penalties totaling 15 yards, the Cougars ticked off seven plays with Bowden hoofing the final two yards with 4:52 left.
In the post-game press conference, a composed Metzel said he told his seniors (including Tennison and defender Matthew Burton, who both joined the coach in fielding questions) “Man, that loss stinks, but I could not be more proud of you.
“Today was not like last year,” Metzel said, referring to the horrific 70-14 thrashing by Carthage after underdog Gilmer had jumped to a 14-0 early lead. “So proud of our guys.”