Stratford and Crescent got into the Christmas spirit four weeks early in their Class A quarterfinal shootout Friday night.
First, Stratford gift-wrapped Crescent’s final points with three penalties — including two personal fouls — during a 67-yard drive capped by Jackson Radford’s 30-yard field late in the third quarter. Then a pair of mental lapses by the host Tigers in the final period gave the Bulldogs arguably the two most valuable gifts in their school’s playoff history and, ultimately, a bizarre 27-17 victory.
Stratford’s first-ever win in a third-round playoff game lifted the Bulldogs into a semifinal showdown with Morrison Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at Moore High School. Morrison built a 28-0 lead and held on to upset No. 2 Cashion, 35-27, Friday night.
“We were only down one (14-13) at halftime and felt like (Crescent) had been more physical,” Stratford coach Michael Blackburn said after seeing his club improve to 11-2. “We just felt like we played great defensively and finally got a little bit of a running game going in the second half. The kids just kept fighting and willed themselves to another victory.”
Radford’s field goal put Crescent in front 17-13 with 16 seconds left in the third period, and after the Bulldogs earned one first down — on a 28-yard catch-and-run by Tommy Lawson on a flat pass from quarterback Chase Chamberlain — on their ensuing possession, a holding penalty and a sack of Chamberlain by Jaden Burns took the steam out of the drive.
Chamberlain’s punt on fourth-and-25 from the Crescent 48 died at the 11, and the Tigers should have taken over at that point. But Tiger freshman Devon Bledsoe walked over and touched the ball, and Stratford senior Nick Cosby picked it up and sprinted to the end zone.
Although the officials ruled Cosby couldn’t advance the ball, they awarded possession to the Bulldogs, and Chamberlain scored the second of his three rushing touchdowns in the game on a keeper up the middle on the next play to suddenly make it 20-17 with 9:23 remaining.
“I don’t know what (Bledsoe) was thinking,” said Cosby, who also recovered a Bledsoe fumble of a kickoff in the first half. “I saw him walking toward the ball, and I was thinking about pushing him into it, then he reached down and touched it. It was a big play. It was kind of stupid.”
The Tigers quickly marched from their 28 to the Stratford 34 with the help of a face mask penalty (the 10th of 11 flags thrown against Stratford in the game for a whopping 115 yards) before Lawson — nearing the end of a huge night of his own — stepped in front of a pass from Crescent quarterback Preston Walker at the Bulldog 25 and returned the interception (his second of the game) to the 36.
Stratford then gave Crescent a lesson in clock management, burning off all but seven seconds of the final 6:29 on a grinding 12-play drive kept alive by the Tigers’ second critical mental mistake of the period.
Facing a fourth-and-1 at the Crescent 43, Chamberlain went into a long count, attempting to draw the Tiger defenders offsides. When nobody jumped right away, Chamberlain — on instructions from Blackburn — sent tailback John Sinnett in motion to the left and let go with another hard count. This time, Crescent senior nose tackle Jeffrey Holley lunged forward and made contact, giving Stratford a first down at the Tiger 38.
“I talked to Chase (during a timeout before the fourth-down play) and said if they didn’t jump at first, to kind of move John, and I was ready to call a timeout if (the Tigers) didn’t (jump),” Blackburn said. “That was a big play.”
Runs of 17 and 11 yards by senior tailback Regand Ardery on consecutive snaps moved the ball to the 8, and after a holding penalty pushed it back to the 18, Stratford milked 1:36 of the final 1:48 on the clock on runs of six yards by Ardery and three yards by Chamberlain.
Facing a fourth-and-goal from the 5, Blackburn called his final timeout with 12 seconds left to set up a play. Chamberlain faked a handoff to the right, put the ball on his left hip and sprinted around left end for the clinching touchdown with just seven seconds showing on the clock.
“I was kind of aggravated at Coach because he was getting the plays in so late (on the final drive), but I guess he knew what he was doing,” Chamberlain said with a broad smile amid the postgame celebration. “The line really stepped up. I could see the fire in their eyes. They really wanted it.”
“That whole drive the offensive line finally started getting a real good push,” Blackburn said. “Regand made some nice runs and Chase made some nice runs. We did enough to hang on the ball, and the touchdown was just icing on the cake.”
Although the two fourth-quarter touchdowns finally sealed the victory, the real story of the game was the second-half performance of a Stratford defense that was pushed around throughout a first half that ended with Crescent up just 14-13.
The Tigers — who had scored 314 points during their six-game winning streak coming into Friday’s contest — had a huge advantage in plays (34-16), yardage (253-150) and time of possession (17:24 to 6:36) at intermission, and tailback Darian Bennett — coming off a 328-yard, six-touchdown performance in a 47-21 victory over Carnegie a week earlier — headed to the locker room with 176 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.
But Chamberlain and Lawson kept the Bulldogs close with three big plays on a pair of touchdown drives that took a total of just 3:15 off the clock, and Stratford’s defense limited Crescent to just 72 total yards in the second half while holding Bennett to four yards on his final seven carries.
“We were beating ourselves in the first half,” Chamberlain said. “Every time we started doing something good, we committed a stupid penalty.”
Chamberlain’s 32-yard run and 27-yard pass to Lawson (who was covered but out-jumped Walker for the ball) on back-to-back plays on Stratford’s second possession of the night gave the Bulldogs a first down at the Crescent 11. After Chamberlain lost a yard on first down, he found Sinnett for 10 yards one play later and scored on a quarterback sneak on the next snap to make it 6-0 with 3:55 left in the opening quarter.
Crescent answered in just over three minutes, driving 63 yards in seven plays and tying the game on Bennett’s 13-yard sweep to the right with 44 seconds left in the period. Radford’s PAT gave the Tigers a 7-6 lead, then Chamberlain and Lawson answered with the biggest play of the night.
Facing a third-and-20 from his 10 after being sacked by Burns on first down, Chamberlain sidestepped the Crescent rush and fired a pass to Lawson, who caught the ball near the right sideline at the 32, sidestepped a defender (who fell down) on a cutback to the middle of the field and raced untouched to the end zone to complete a 90-yard catch-and-run. Devaunté Barber’s extra point put Stratford back in front 13-7 with 11:41 left in the half.
“I told Coach I could beat those guys one-on-one all night, and he listened to me,” said Lawson, who, in addition to his two interceptions, caught three passes for 145 yards.
The Bulldogs had a chance to extend their lead after Cosby recovered Bledsoe’s muff of the ensuing kickoff, but Radford intercepted a Chamberlain pass at the Crescent 12 on the next play to launch the Tigers on an 88-yard drive to the go-ahead touchdown.
Bennett broke three tackles on a 23-yard run on the second play of the march, and he gained 13 more yards to the Stratford 45 two plays later before a pair of penalties — one for an illegal block and the other for holding — left the Tigers facing a second-and-20 at their 45. A questionable pass interference penalty on the next snap kept the drive alive, however, and six plays later Bennett swept left end, broke two tackles and carried two Bulldogs into the end zone to put Crescent up 14-13 with 6:24 left in the half.
The Tigers had a chance to score again before intermission, driving from their 44 to the Stratford 38 before Lawson picked off a Walker pass at the 10 with three seconds left.
Chamberlain, who had thrown for a career-high 184 yards in Stratford’s 21-14 upset of fifth-ranked Afton a week earlier, completed 7-of-14 passes Friday (to four different receivers) for a new career-best 194 yards.
Despite being sacked twice and being tackled for losses totaling 22 yards, Chamberlain ran for 62 yards on 19 tough carries to pace a Stratford ground attack that had gained just 23 yards at intermission but added 109 in the second half. Ardery, who didn’t touch the ball in the first half, carried nine times for 60 yards after the break.
The Bulldogs wasted an impressive drive to open the second half — a seven-play march that began at the Stratford 38 and featured runs of 12 and 13 yards by Ardery and a 21-yard pass from Chamberlain to Tyler Scoles — when Scoles fumbled while struggling for yardage after catching a nine-yard pass to the Crescent 2 on fourth-and-8.
The Tigers recovered the fumble at the 5 and, after an exchange of punts, took over at their 37 and moved to the Stratford 14 with the help of a roughing-the-punter penalty and a personal foul in the space of three snaps. Two plays later, a minor face mask penalty gave Crescent a first down at the 20, but three plays gained just six yards and Radford split the uprights from 30 yards out to give the Tigers their biggest lead of the night at 17-13.
Bennett finished with 224 yards on 29 carries to cap a three-game playoff explosion during which he gained over 800 yards. The senior tailback had runs of 52 (on his first carry of the night), 27, 23, 18 and 13 yards, but he was also held to three yards or fewer on 13 of his 29 carries.
Junior Alix Vanlandingham led the Stratford defense with 15 tackles, junior Tyler Gaines added 14 stops, and Cosby and fellow senior Cody Watts and Cosby finished with 13 apiece.
“We gave up a few too many big plays, but the kids bowed up and played really good defense when their backs were against the wall,” Blackburn said.
Although Crescent outgained Stratford, 325-317, piled up 294 yards on the ground and had 22 first downs (to nine for the Bulldogs), Chamberlain was a lot more effective through the air than Walker (who was just 3-for-7 for 32 yards and was intercepted twice) and Stratford won the turnover battle, 4-2.