Last year the Mexico varsity football team was riding high come playoff time, and it had every right to be after winning sevens games in the regular season.
Then Christian came to town and snuck away with a close district victory and the Bulldogs had the entire offseason to think about it. So, when the rematch took place at Mexico on Friday and the Eagles were proving just as difficult after taking a 21-7 lead in the second quarter, the crowd became a little restless.
Bulldogs head coach Steve Haag never backed down from his game plan, though. Instead, Haag stayed true to the smash-mouth style of football this area has come to know and love and it paid off in spades as Mexico eventually pulled away from Christian to win 52-28.
"I think the biggest difference in this game was holding on to the football. In the first half we fumbled three times," Haag said. "We battled back to tie it, but we stopped ourselves. I think we punted once. If we had held on to the ball we might score two or three times in the first half. The big thing coming out for the second half was maintaining possession and the physical brand of football that we play. I know they got sick of seeing that. That's what we want to do, wear teams out in the fourth quarter."
Even though the Bulldogs early efforts weren't as refined as they could have been, their initial challenge came at 6:17 of the first quarter when the Eagles had the ball on a fourth down and one at the 50-yard line. After calling a timeout to discuss its options, Christian quarterback Brady Tolle tried to get tricky by dropping back for a play-action pass. Wyatt Turner, on the other hand, wasn't fooled, so he batted down the throw like he was spiking a volleyball to give Mexico possession.
"We've been working on (defending) the screen (pass). (Turner) read the screen and we always tell the players to retrace their steps, and he did," said Haag. "He got his hand up, knocked the ball down and it was a great play."
On the ensuing possession Dillon Nichols took the initial handoff and blasted his way down to the 13-yard line. Not to be outdone, Jonathon Grubb then finished off that drive one play later on a touchdown run to the right that put the Bulldogs up 7-0 at 5:54 of the first.
"(Grubb) has done a great job for us all year. He's harder on himself than anybody," Haag said. "To come back, run hard and get the yards that he did while managing the offense, that's something we missed last year. We've got it this year and that's awesome. I feel great for him. He's worked hard and he's a senior. It's always good to be able to play one more game when your a senior."
It was at 1:43 of the first that Christian finally tied things up at 7-7 on a 17-yard strike from Tolle to Kalin Black. Because Mexico then fumbled on the opening play of the very next drive, the Eagles set up shop just inside the 50-yard line and, several passes later, reached the endzone at :28 on a 46-yard toss from Tolle to Sharrod Alexander to take a 14-7 lead.
"In the first half we were able to block (Mexico defensive lineman Terrese Aaron). By the second half he was giving us problems. He's a great player," said Christian coach Andy Hare. "They made some changes at halftime and they did a nice job staying deep and not letting us get some of the big plays we were getting earlier. We made some good plays, Mexico made some great plays and we couldn't stop their option. They have a great option attack."
Things only got worse for Mexico in the second quarter when it was called for pass interference in the endzone to give Christian a first and goal at the one yard line. That led to Tolle tossing a touchdown to Evan Soell at 10:05, and after Zach Harding connected for his third extra point, the Bulldogs were now trailing by two touchdowns.
"The play we called, we saw that we could attack one of their cornerbacks and fortunately the ball went to the right spot," Hare said. "With that offense Mexico runs, they can grind it out on you. You have to stay ahead of them, and we couldn't stay ahead of them. We also dropped too many balls. Good luck to them. They're a good team."
Realizing what his squad needed to get back in this contest, Haag turned to Cameron Holman, who responded with a two-yard touchdown jaunt at 7:30. Even though Christian should have seen it coming, Holman waited until there was just :22 left in the first half to tie the game at 21-21 on a pitch to the right on fourth down and three. While that scenario was originally a fourth down and six, the Eagles were hit with an offsides penalty that cost them half the distance.
"(Holman) always does a great job. He's a playmaker who throws his body out there," said Haag. "He was pretty vocal at halftime. Much more vocal than he had been. You could tell he was fired up. Everybody else sees the runs. I see the blocks. He and Tyler Tally blocking was just amazing."
The third quarter started by following that same back-and-forth pattern that saw Mexico's Gage Gilmore hit a field goal at 8:25 to make it a 24-21 game before Tolle and Alexnader hooked up for another airborne score for the Eagles. Then came the fourth and the Bulldogs will finally started getting imposed at 10:52 with a Holman 61-yard scoring burst and an interception by Jasean White at 9:56.
"White did a great job. On that first interception I'm jot sure he knew he had it," said Haag. "He's getting better every week. You could see tonight he had some confidence in him. That was just awesome."
Mexico's next score came on a short run by Dillon Nichols at 4:54 that Tyler Tally followed with a 10-yard run to the promised land at 1:53 to extend the advantage to 45-28. Just for good measure, Grubb intercepted a pass and ran it back for the final touchdown of this contest, leaving just 1:26 on the clock for Christian to toy with before finally being laid to rest.
"(Nichols) did a great job after going down last week. He runs a good line and he's hard to see behind those big linemen. Nichols also has good speed and quickness," Haag said. "We made some adjustments at halftime based on showing Tally the holes, and he got up in there and did a great job."
The Bulldogs next host a district semifinals contest on Oct. 27 against Southern Boone, which defeated Fulton 34-15 in its opening round playoff game last Friday.