BRYAN — Needing a win on the road to keep their season alive, the Huntsville Hornets took the field with a different energy Thursday night.
With over 30 seniors that could’ve been playing their final high school game, it’s easy to understand why.
Huntsville’s defense dominated Bryan Rudder at the line of scrimmage early, allowing the Hornets to build a 31-0 lead by the 6:49 mark of the second quarter. By the time the Rangers’ offense woke up, it was too late. Huntsville held on for a 38-14 victory — securing a playoff berth in its regular season finale.
"Honestly, I was thinking about it all week," Huntsville senior receiver Tyrique Carter said of the game's win-or-go-home implications. "Us as seniors kept saying, 'This is not going to be our last game.' We just kept saying it, and that's what happened."
"It's our senior year," added linebacker Jordan Brown, "so we really want to go far to set an example for the ones below us and live up to the hype."
Huntsville began tilting momentum in its favor almost immediately after the opening kickoff.
On the third play from scrimmage, a gang of Hornet defenders forced a fumble on a Rudder jet sweep. Senior defensive back Camron Woodberry picked the ball up and returned it to the opponent's 15-yard line, setting up an 11-yard touchdown run by senior running back Cameron Myers.
It wouldn't get any better for the Rangers on their next drive.
A sack by junior defensive end Quaterian Riles and an intentional grounding call set up fourth down at the Rudder 1-yard line, and a botched punt on the next play gave Huntsville the ball back at the Rangers' 10. Two plays later, senior running back Tristan Riggins carried it in from one yard out to stretch the Hornets' lead to 14
A 20-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback AJ Wilson to Carter put Huntsville up 21-0 with 50 seconds left in the first quarter.
"That's one of the best first quarters we've played this season," Huntsville head coach Rodney Southern said.
In addition to setting the offense up with prime field position, the Huntsville defense prevented Rudder from crossing midfield until the 6:07 mark of the second quarter — and that only occurred following a roughing the passer call.
Senior defensive backs Kobe Lewis and Jaden Schroeder each had first-half interceptions for Huntsville, with Schroeder returning his 48 yards for a touchdown to build a 28-0 lead with 9:53 left in the second quarter. A tenacious defensive front made it look easy for the Hornets' secondary, with senior defensive end Briceon Hayes recording three sacks and Brown adding two.
Rudder wouldn't go away quietly, however, even after a Christian Avelar field goal increased Huntsville's advantage to 31 points.
Senior running back James Ayers got the Rangers on the scoreboard with a 19-yard run in the final minutes of the first half, and sophomore quarterback EJ Ezar cut the deficit down to 17 with 8:12 left in the third quarter.
With Huntsville failing to pick up a first down in the third quarter, Rudder suddenly found itself within striking distance. Ezar then sent the home crowd into a frenzy, as he hit junior receiver Keithron Lee for what appeared to be a 33-yard touchdown strike.
A yellow flag lying near the quarterback swiftly turned the roar into a whisper.
Rudder was flagged for a chop block, wiping out the score. Brown proceeded to intercept Ezar on the next play, swallowing up any hopes of a comeback.
"It felt really good to make a big play for my team," Brown said. "Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games."
Energized by the recent swing of events, Huntsville rattled off an 11-play, 96-yard scoring drive to begin the fourth quarter. Riggins picked up four first downs on the ground to bring the Hornets into Rudder territory, and Wilson connected with Carter another score — this time from 48 yards out — to put the game out of reach.
"We've worked that set a lot, we just haven't had to use it," Southern said. "Tristan did a really good job ... picked up I don't know how many first downs and ate up a lot of clock. Then obviously, Tyrique made a phenomenal catch in the end zone."
While Huntsville has secured a postseason berth, their playoff seeding has yet to be determined.
The Hornets can finish anywhere from second to fourth in District 10-5A Division II, depending on the outcome of Friday's game between Katy Paetow and Lamar Consolidated. They will face either Marshall, Whitehouse or Lindale in the bi-district round.
"There's a possibility we could play all three of those teams," Southern said. "It will probably be Whitehouse on the road or Lindale at home, but of course that all depends on what happens with Paetow and Lamar Consolidated.
"We'll exchange film Saturday and go to work."
Huge turnover forced by the Huntsville D on the opening drive pic.twitter.com/QlMEziVrCG— Josh Criswell (@Item_Criswell) November 8, 2019
Quaterian Riles sacks the QB pic.twitter.com/3gNbtxltuD— Josh Criswell (@Item_Criswell) November 8, 2019
Huntsville forces intentional grounding at the 1, 8 yard punt ensues pic.twitter.com/gRXxDWwVW6— Josh Criswell (@Item_Criswell) November 8, 2019
Great concentration on the tipped ball pic.twitter.com/Pki2gEWpKT— Josh Criswell (@Item_Criswell) November 8, 2019
Riggins carries it in from two yards out to put Huntsville up 14-0 pic.twitter.com/9rpIqFD1Vn— Josh Criswell (@Item_Criswell) November 8, 2019
Big time hit by Jordan Brown to get Huntsville off the field on third down pic.twitter.com/kHl9zpfTIF— Josh Criswell (@Item_Criswell) November 8, 2019
48 yd TD run by Nate Hambright called back pic.twitter.com/noZxKodMTR— Josh Criswell (@Item_Criswell) November 8, 2019