By Tony Adams
The Belton Tigers needed to a win against Copperas Cove at Bulldawg Stadium and some help from Killeen for a favorable playoff seeding.
The Tigers left no doubt what their intentions were in the final regular season game: to get into the playoffs.
Belton and Cove were locked up at 21-21 before the Tigers offense reeled off 35 unanswered points in a 56-21 win over the Dawgs.
The win, coupled with Killeen’s 30-29 come-from-behind win over Harker Heights, earned Belton second place and a bi-district playoff game to open the 2016 Class 6A Playoffs at Tiger Field this Friday night against South Grand Prairie. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
The Tigers opened the game with the ball. After a 7-yard pass from Peyton Mansell to Weston Lucas, Mansell busted through the secondary for a 45-yard touchdown run with Davion Peoples flanking him as a blocker. Nyle Tabat’s extra-point made the score 7-0 just 35 seconds into the ball game.
After a pair of punts, Cove picked up their first score of the ball game. Caine Garner’s completion to Isaiah McGriff for 23 yards set up his 36-yard touchdown pass to Kendall Small. Seth Meeks extra-point made the score 7-7 with 5:35 to play in the first quarter.
Belton was quick to answer the Dawgs, as Peoples rushed for a 35-yard gain to start the ensuing drive. On fourth down and eight at the Cove 34, Mansell hit Weston Lucas for a 34-yard touchdown. Tabat’s extra-point was good to give the Tigers a 14-7 lead with 4:03 to play in the opening stanza.
Cove counterpunched with an 8-play, 75-yard drive, with Elijah Washington scoring for nine yards out. Meeks’ extra-point tied the game at 14-14 with 1:34 to go in the first quarter.
As the second quarter began, Mansell hit Logan Collins down the right side for a 47-yard pass play to the Cove 20. Five plays later, Mansell hit Collins crossing over the middle and into the end zone. Tabat’s extra-point put the Tigers back in front with 10:24 to play in the first half.
Kylan Herrera’s 30-yard run set up Cove’s answering score, with Garner hitting Small for a 28-yard touchdown. Meeks’ extra-point tied the game again, this time at 21-21.
The momentum slowly slid Belton’s direction on the next drive, as the Tigers had a 10-play, 81-yard, 3:17 series end with a Bryce Julian 30-yard scamper. Tabat’s extra-point made the score 28-21 with 5:40 to play in the half.
The touchdown also reset the team’s single-season scoring record (452) set last season in 11 games.
CJ Jones, Reagan Chapman, John Harvey and the rest of the Belton defense ran through the Dawgs’ offensive line on the next drive, holding Washington and Herrera at the line of scrimmage. Jones sacked Garner for an 8-yard loss, forcing another Cove punt. However, the punt was shanked in a heavy rain the began shortly after Julian’s touchdown and landed at the Cove 25.
Mansell and company took advantage of the short-field gift bestowed upon them. Mansell’s 13-yard run set up a 6-yard touchdown to Chandler Vela. Tabat’s extra-point put Belton on top 35-21 with 2:51 to play in the first half.
Fourteen point leads have not been friendly to the Tigers this season. However, the defense made it stick on the next drive, with the entire defense giving the Cove offense fits trying to stop them. The Dawgs punted back to the Tigers and Belton took over at their own 20.
Peoples carried the first two plays for 10 yards. It set up a beautiful catch-and-run from Mansell to Collins for a 70-yard touchdown with 28 seconds remaining in the half. Tabat’s extra-point put the Tigers up three scores at 42-21, which remained the score at halftime.
Cove received the second-half kickoff and went backwards, punting back to Belton.
After Peoples’ five-yard run started the drive, the Iowa-commit Mansell hit North Texas commit Remington Lutz over the middle. The big tight end outran three Dawgs in the secondary for a 68-yard touchdown. Tabat’s extra-point extended Belton’s lead to 28 point with 9:34 remaining in the third quarter, 49-21.
Garrison Vaughn, who had been laying the wood to Cove players all night, crushed Herrera on the kickoff. After Garner picked up a 23-yard run and Washington picked up eight yards on a sweep play, the Cove drive stalled at the Dawgs’ 38.
Belton took over at their own 20. The Tigers’ Lucky 7 hung another six points on the board, as Peoples blew threw a huge whole opened by the Belton offensive line and sprinted 80 yards for the touchdown. Tabat’s extra-point gave the Tigers a 56-21 lead with 6:55 to go in the third quarter.
Vaughn made his presence felt again on Cove’s next possession, collecting all four tackles and forcing another Dawgs’ punt.
John Taggart, who made the conversion from backup quarterback to wide receiver this season, was pressed into the backup role against the Dawgs and made the most of his playing opportunity. Taggart, Julian and Hunter Torres alternated carries between them over a 13-play, 47-yard, 7:56 possession, which bridged over into the fourth quarter.
Cove had two more possessions, but neither gained yardage. Belton was able to get Tannor Yearwood a long run at quarterback and a couple of plays in at wide receiver to the joy of the Belton faithful, who braved the rain. Taggart took a knee to end the ball game.
The Tigers scored 56 points in a game for the fourth time this season, all against teams in the west part of District 8-6A (Killeen, Shoemaker, Ellison, Copperas Cove) and shattered their 452-point mark set last season in 11 games with a 480-point output in 10 games.
Belton outscored opponents in district 294-155 and overall 480-279. Their record improved to 7-3 on the season and finished second in District 8-6A with a 4-2 record.
The team has had a lead in 21 consecutive ball games, ranging back to the area playoff game in 2014 against Dallas Skyline.
It also put to bed recent bad memories of games at Bulldawg Stadium, including the bizarre 59-52 loss to Cove last season. It also slammed the door shut on the close losses against Temple, Harker Heights and Waco Midway.
“We challenged our kids to now let it happen again,” Belton head coach Bob Shipley said. “We learned from it and put it to good use. We poured it on tonight and we didn’t want that to happen again. I am really proud of our defense. The last two or three series of the first half, they played a lot better. But we still have a lot of work to do. When you shut out a team as powerful as Cove is for two quarters, that’s something special.”
DJ Fisher was one of the members of the defense that was around the ball all night long. Pressuring quarterbacks Garner and Jaylen Smith all night long, Fisher felt his defense was challenged all night long and they answered with a solid performance.
“Cove came out strong and, defensively speaking, we click after the first series,” Fisher said. “We told each other that this could be our last game together and that we are not going out like that to let that happen. We bonded together and played as a unit. It showed throughout the game. After halftime, we allowed no points. So I can say that I am proud of our defense.”
Mansell was 9-of-12 for 272 yards and five touchdowns, to go with seven carries, 76 yards and a touchdown run.
Peoples ran 15 times for 157 yards and a touchdown. Julian added 17 carries for 76 yards and a touchdown. Yearwood added a 20-yard gain on the ground.
Collins led the Tigers with 132 yards and two touchdowns on three receptions. Lutz had 70 yards, Lucas had 56 yards and Vela added 14 yards.
Garner was 13-of-22 passing for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Herrera ran for 133 yards and Small had 77 receiving yards and two touchdowns for the Dawgs, who ended their season at 4-5 overall and 2-4 in district play.