When the Altus Bulldogs walked off the field Friday night, they did so having left everything they had out on the grass of Hightower Memorial Stadium.
The team had just endured one of the toughest battles of the season despite being heavily favored to crush the 5-6 Lawton Eisenhower Eagles. At one point, it seemed the Bulldogs were destined to do just that as they overcame a sloppy first half of football in which they scored just seven points to Eisenhower’s 10.
Coach Todd Vargas said Ike played well and limited the Bulldogs’ offensive possessions to control much of the first half of football.
“In the first half, the defense just played on their heels,” Vargas said. “They flipped the script on us, normally we’re the team that keeps the ball away from the opposing team’s offense, but in the first half, we couldn’t get our defense off the field and hats off to Ike, they played extremely well. Offensively, we only got three series. We scored on one of them, one we had to punt and one we had a fumble, but we only went in the half trailing 10-7. At halftime, we felt comfortable playing what we felt was that poor. In the second half, it was a gut check. It wasn’t the scheme or anything else, we knew we had to play with a lot of heart and that’s exactly what we did.”
The offense was spurred by a 49-yard run from Daniel Riley that set Jake Vargas and company up at the four-yard line. Vargas took the quarterback keeper and barreled his way into the endzone to give Altus a 14-13 advantage with 4:04 remaining in the third quarter.
The momentum shifted even further when Noah Briones jumped in front of a pass from RJ Fisher and picked it off at the 31-yard line before evading tacklers for 69 yards for the touchdown.
The team was playing with a renewed intensity, shutting down Eisenhower’s offense with ease and finding their rhythm on offense with Vargas taking control of the game and carving up the Eagles’ defense with touchdown runs of 48 and 29 yards.
In less than eight minutes, the Bulldogs had clawed their way back from a 13-7 deficit and were leading 35-13. A defense that, at first, had no answer for Lawton’s Fisher was suddenly finding ways to pressure him by collapsing the pocket and forcing him to throw on the run or tuck the ball and find a lane himself.
In the last two quarters alone, the Bulldogs had intercepted Fisher three times. Briones had the first, Ryan Borrego had the second, and Kobi Gomez had the last, but perhaps biggest, one of the game.
Following Altus’ final touchdown, Eisenhower needed less than two minutes to march down field and cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 14. The Eagles opted for an onside kick and recovered it at the Bulldogs 37-yard line before marching the 37 yards in just a minute to pull within a touchdown.
Coach Vargas said Altus’ defense played a little more loosely and that is what allowed Eisenhower to get back into the game.
“Everything was going great and then we got a little lax,” Coach Vargas said. “We had that tipped ball and I thought Jake was going to pick it but the kid makes a great catch and scores and then they get the onside and the kid throws it over the top and suddenly it’s a seven-point game.”
Rather than take a shot at the end zone, the Bulldogs opted to run the clock but could not convert a crucial third down play. Altus was forced to punt, leaving Fisher and the Eagles plenty of time on the clock to try and score again and force overtime.
But that’s when Gomez stepped up and made the play of the game.
With 1:20 remaining on the clock, Fisher dropped back to pass but was pressured just as soon as he snapped the ball. Fisher did as Fisher does, scrambling to give a receiver time to get open and just as soon as he thought he found one, Gomez closed the gap and picked the ball off to essentially seal the victory for the Bulldogs with 1:11 remaining in the game.
The Bulldogs needed only to pick up a single first down to run the clock and they did so on a big time Brenden Phillips run of 12 yards. A few kneel downs and the Bulldogs had their first playoff win in two years.
Besides the big plays from Briones, Borrego and Gomez, another big time playmaker for the Bulldogs on Friday night was Jazerick Pitts who could simply not be stopped. Pitts was quick to swarm to the ball whether it was in the hands of the running back or quarterback and often times, he was front and center of a play that stopped the Eagles offense for a loss.
Coach Vargas said that kind of playmaking is what makes Pitts such a key part of the Bulldogs’ defense.
“Jazerick is an incredible player,” Coach Vargas said. “He has so much quickness and that’s why he’s so good where he’s at in the defensive tackle position. In the first half, we kept telling the guys we’re bull rushing and letting them grab ahold of us and we just told them, ‘we’ve got to evade these guys and get in the back field and cause pressure like we do’ and he did a tremendous job.”
The defense controlled the game for much of the game and the offense came alive in the second half to take a huge lead over the Eagles, and Coach Vargas said he was happy to see his team buckle down and make the plays they needed to make when they needed to make them the most.
“The kids persevered,” Coach Vargas said. “They played with incredible effort and in the playoffs, you don’t get style points, you just get wins and we’re very happy to be playing at Skiatook.”
The 35-28 victory moved the Bulldogs on to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in two seasons. The team will face Skiatook in Skiatook at 7 p.m. Friday.
Reach Ryan Lewis at 580-482-1221, ext. 2076.
Reach Ryan Lewis at 580-482-1221, ext. 2076.