JUSTIN - Six turnovers and deficits of 23-0 and later 32-13 weren’t quite enough to completely bury Stephenville.
But three sacks and a dropped pass on the Yellow Jackets’ final possession were just enough for Wichita Falls Rider to survive a late rally by the Yellow Jackets in the area round of the Class 4A Division 2 football playoffs Friday.
“We had our chances and we squandered a few of them,” fifth-year Stephenville Head Coach Chad Morris explained after the game. “You can’t do that, no matter who you play.”
Rider (11-1) eliminated Stephenville (10-2) from the postseason for the third time in the last four years in a 32-29 thriller in front of an estimated 15,000 in attendance at Northwest ISD Stadium.
The Raiders advance to meet Lubbock Estacado in the Region I semi-finals, while Stephenville continues its stretch of now eight years since the school’s last state title in 1999.
The Raiders now hold a 3-2 advantage over the Jackets after the fifth meeting between the two schools. All of Rider’s wins have come in the postseason, while Stephenville has won twice in regular season match-ups.
Stephenville trailed 32-13 before erupting for 16 points in just 2:27 to pull within three with still 4:15 remaining.
The rally started when Rider kicker/punter Austin Neale was forced to run out the back of the end zone because of a bad snap on a punt attempt deep in Raider territory, granting Stephenville two points for a safety.
Down 17, Stephenville pulled even closer on the ensuing drive when Spano hit Josh Graves with a 20-yard touchdown strike to make it 32-22.
An on-side kick rolled exactly the required 10 yards and was recovered by Stephenville's Cody Wood, setting the Yellow Jackets up for a quick score.
Spano hit Dakota Mathis with a pass, and Mathis bounced off would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone for a 45-yard score. German Chavarria's third PAT gave the game its final tally.
Rider gained only two yards on three plays after starting the next drive at its own nine, then punted to set up Stephenville's final chance.
The Raiders held a 23-0 lead after a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown by John Fisher on the second play from scrimmage after halftime.
“At that point, anything we talked about at halftime as far as our running game went out the window,” Morris said concerning the score after the interception return.
Stephenville finally got on the board with a 60-yard scoring pass from Spano to Malone at the five-minute mark of the third, then got closer when the duo connected again on an eight-yard touchdown to make it 23-13.
Stephenville attempted a two-point conversion after the second score, but Jurell Thompson picked off a pass and returned it the other way for two Raider points.
Spano finished 21-44 passing for 403 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions (with a fifth on the conversion attempt). He was 2-11 for only 33 yards and an interception in the first half, before completing 19 of 33 passes for 370 yards in the second. He was sacked eight times, all in the fourth quarter.
“Kody is a great football player,” Morris said of Spano. “He may not have had his best night, but we knew coming into the game that we couldn’t turn the ball over and give up easy points.”
Malone had seven receptions for 186 yards and two scores, all in the second half. Mathis caught four passes for 102 yards and one touchdown.
The Jackets were forced to be one-dimensional, gaining only 34 rushing yards on 26 attempts.
“I feel like they dominated us up front a little bit,” said Morris.
Shavodrick Beaver made it 32-13 with a six-yard touchdown scamper - his second of the night - with 9:10 remaining to start the scoring in the dramatic final period.
Beaver matched his season high of 95 rushing yards and had two touchdown scampers. He also completed 18 of 37 pass attempts for 187 yards and an interception, finishing with a hand in 282 of Rider's 313 total yards of offense.
Stephenville struggled in the first half, picking up only 89 yards of offense and three first downs.
Rider, meanwhile, scored on field goals of 33, 24 and 36 yards by Joey Neale, and a 15-yard run by Beaver to lead 16-0 at halftime.
Brad Keith is the sports editor at the Empire-Tribune. He can be reached at (254) 965-3124, ext. 241, or by e-mail at brad.keith @empiretribune.com.