BURLESON — In a Class 4A Division II playoff opener that will be talked about for years, Stephenville outscored Fort Worth Dunbar 27-7 over the final five minutes of regulation and two overtimes to pull off an unlikely 47-41 come-from-behind victory in Region I bi-district action at Burleson Stadium Friday.
Stephenville, which improved to 8-3 with its fourth straight win, advances to meet Wichita Falls Rider in the area round at Northwest ISD Stadium in Justin next Friday, marking the third straight year and fourth in the last five that the Yellow Jackets have clashed with Rider in the postseason.
Dunbar, champions of District 7-4A, had its nine-game win streak snapped and finishes its season with a 9-2 mark.
“Welcome to playoff football!” exclaimed Stephenville’s Joseph Gillespie, who picked up his first postseason win as a head coach. “That’s what it’s all about - two good football teams battling back and forth with everything on the line. Both teams were great and the crowd was like a 12th man on the field. The atmosphere couldn’t have been better. I can’t wait to double it up and do it against Rider next week.”
The Wildcats appeared to have things in hand with a 34-20 lead and only 6:03 remaining, but 8-4A runner-up Stephenville, which improved to 17-2 in opening round playoff games during its run of 19 trips to the postseason in the last 20 years, wouldn’t give up.
Yellow Jacket quarterback Brad Picha began his night with only one first-half completion, going 1-6 for four yards, but ended it with six straight completions to finish 14-26 for 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Picha led the Jackets on a quick six-play, 80-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 21-yard touchdown strike to Daniel Noland, pulling SHS within seven with 4:43 still to play.
“The offense did excactly what we needed in that situation,” Gillespie said. “It was great play calling, great execution and great play-making. By the end of the drive I felt like we had them guessing instead of reading and reacting.”
Dunbar, which became the first team in more than two years to roll up more than 500 yards of offense against Stephenville but also committed three turnovers and was penalized 11 times for 130 yards, went backwards on its next possession.
Josh Emmons dominated on the defensive line all night but saved his best plays for last, snuffing out a reverse for a loss of 10 yards and then recovering a bad snap on a punt attempt at the Wildcat two and stumbling into the end zone for his second turnover-turned-touchdown of the season to tie the score at 34-34.
Dunbar got the ball back at its own 39 with 3:28 remaining, and in six plays moved 49 yards to the Stephenville 12. An inside sweep to wing-back Dominique Sanders then went 10 yards to the Jacket two-yard-line, but the play was negated by a chop block.
Undeterred, quarterback Nicholas Rockwell hit Sanders with a 21-yard pass. Stephenville defensive back Chris Malone made a game-saving tackle on the play to go with his three pass break-ups earlier in the night.
On fourth-and-goal from the seven, Rockwell scrambled left, was hit at the two by Colby Stokes, and fumbled the ball into the end zone with no time left on the clock. Dunbar recovered, but by rule, a player who fumbles on fourth down must recover the ball himself to maintain possession, pick up a first down or score.
A disappointed Dunbar team that thought it had won in regulation scored on its first overtime possession, but never truly recovered from the sting felt over the last half of the fourth.
“When a team comes back from 14 down to force overtime, even though the score is tied, that team is really in control,” Gillespie explained. “That’s almost always too big of a momentum swing for the team that was in the lead to overcome.”
Dunbar scored in two plays, both Rockwell scrambles, to begin the first overtime, but Stephenville answered just as quickly. Picha hit Dakota Mathis with a 22-yard pass on the first play from the Dunbar 25, and two plays later running back Brad Mills was celebrating in the end zone.
Because Dunbar won the overtime coin toss and elected to start on offense, Gillespie used his second-overtime choice to again send his defense on the field first.
Dunbar moved to the seven before committing a personal foul. Emmons then registered yet another sack, this one for a loss of 10 yards. Rockwell scrambled for nine on third down, but a 40-yard field goal attempt by Francisco Navarro went wide left.
Picha opened Stephenville’s final possession with a 13-yard pass to Josh Graves, who was shut out in the first half before catching six passes for 64 yards after the break. Mills followed with a pair of five-yard runs before Picha’s second rushing touchdown, a two-yard plunge, sent Yellow Jacket fans and players into a frenzied celebration.
“The best thing about our kids is they never stop believing,” Gillespie said. “We don’t have any guys on our team who wait around for somebody else to go make a big play to turn things around. Instead they take it upon themselves to make that play.”
Stephenville finished with 353 yards of offense, the first time in four weeks they were held under 400. Of 61 offensive snaps, 30 were handoffs to Mills, who bullied his way to 125 yards without a single run of more than 20.
The lead went back and forth throughout the first three quarters.
Rockwell, who rushed for 160 yards on 21 attempts and was 12-18 passing for 189 yards and two scores, opened the scoring with a two-yard run midway through the first, but Stephenville came back with a 30-yard Chavarria field goal and a one-yard touchdown dive by Picha to lead, 10-6. Malone set up the Picha score with a 45-yard kickoff return into Dunbar territory. The Jackets then faced four third-down situations and even converted a fourth-down attempt on their way to the end zone.
Dunbar took the lead back just before halftime when Brandon Jovilet broke free on a 66-yard sprint, making it 13-10 at the break.
Both teams fought a fierce 40-plus mile per hour wind, and at one point in the second quarter, Stephenville called 20 consecutive running plays. The playbooks were finally opened up a little more after the break.
Picha froze the defense with a play fake and then hit a wide open Mills in the left flat for a five-yard touchdown on the first drive of the third, putting SHS on top, 17-13.
Dunbar wasted no time responding with a 68-yard pass from Rockwell to electrifying junior Darius White, but Stephenville came back with Chavarria’s second field goal from 31 yards out to knot the score at 20-20.
The Wildcats appeared ready to take over early in the fourth. Rockwell hit Sanders with a 22-yard scoring pass, the Dunbar defense forced a quick three-and-out, and a fake field goal on which White, the holder, scrambled for his life in the backfield before finding Joseph Briscoe all alone for a 17-yard touchdown, opened up a two-score lead halfway through the fourth.
White, who has been touted as one of the best junior wide receivers in the country and is being recruited by Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia among others, was as good as advertised, hauling in six receptions for 110 yards and a touchdown to go with his scoring pass.
The meeting was the second in the playoffs this decade between Stephenville and Dunbar. The Wildcats eliminated the Jackets in 2001 with a 35-24 bi-district win that came after SHS defeated Dunbar, 24-21, in the regular season. Stephenville played in its first overtime game since knocking off Plainview, 26-23, in a 2005 4A-DI regional final that also took a pair of extra sessions.
Stephenville and Rider will meet for the sixth time in the last five years Friday. SHS won both regular season battles in 2006 and 2007, but the Raiders eliminated Stephenville from the playoffs in 2004 and each of the last two years.
“This is just as big as it has been the last few years,” Gillespie said of the date with Rider. “You look at the brackets and you only see a handful of teams who you think are really capable of playing for a state championship. Four of them are in this region with us and Rider, and Aledo and Everman (who also play in the area finals). Two good football teams are going home after the second round, but two others will come out of it looking pretty good for the next couple weeks. I don’t know what’s going to happen on Friday, but I know it should be another great game.”