The Clinton Red Tornadoes thought they were coming into their season opener against the Altus Bulldogs as The Daily Oklahoman’s one-point favorite to win the game. It is, after all, what was predicted — a 21-20 Clinton Red Tornadoes victory over the reigning Class 5A football state champions.
They thought they had prepared well coming into zero week. They believed they would do whatever was necessary to sock the Bulldogs in the mouth and take some of the wind out of their sails.
They wanted to win, that much was evident, and for the entire first half of football in Clinton on Friday night, it looked like that was a very real possibility.
The game early on was all about the defensive side of the ball for both teams. It was a brawl, both teams doing everything within their power to keep their opponent scoreless.
And so with the score knotted at zero, Bulldog quarterback Jake Vargas snapped the ball with 3:51 remaining in the first half and handed the ball off to fullback Noah Villarreal.
Villarreal could taste the end zone, diving across the goal line for a three-yard touchdown run whipping the Bulldog fans, coaches, and players into a frenzy.
But the celebration was short-lived as a Bulldog hold negated the go-ahead touchdown.
After a penalty mark-off and a Vargas sack, the Bulldogs found themselves looking at a fourth down with 28 yards to go until pay dirt. The Bulldogs elected to go for it, but Vargas found himself in trouble and scrambled out of the pocket using his mobility to extend the play and try and make something happen for the Bulldogs.
But Clinton’s Christopher Brooks stepped in front of the Bulldogs’ receiver and claimed the ball as his own, stutter-stepping and escaping the grasps of every Bulldog player to the tune of a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Suddenly, the defending champs found themselves with their backs against the wall.
“Well, the first half was a little bit of the jitters. We actually did some good things offensively, but we kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” Bulldog Head Coach Todd Vargas said. “Between the penalties and mistakes we could never get consistent. We started running behind the chains and in this offense if you’re starting off first-and-15, it’s just not good. So second half, we told them we were doing things right, we just gotta get consistent and execute.”
That is exactly what the Bulldogs did in the second half, and it did not take long to find out which team was more physically prepared for the game.
After the Bulldogs received the kick to start the second half, Villarreal took the game over like a man on a mission.
After a five-yard run to start their possession, Villarreal put his head down and barreled through the line for a huge 32-yard gain, putting the Bulldogs at the Clinton 21-yard line.
Vargas got in on the action, taking a 13-yard carry to the Clinton eight before a Tito Jones touchdown run put the Bulldogs on the board with 8:15 left in the third quarter.
Things seemed to be turning around for the Bulldogs until Clinton’s Dawson Ballard answered the Bulldogs’ points with some of his own, blasting through the Bulldog’s line and torching the secondary for a 62-yard touchdown run, giving Clinton a 14-7 lead with 8:01 left in the third quarter.
But a game that had been primarily defensively dominated for the entire first half suddenly became a showcase of each team’s offensive weaponry.
The Bulldogs’ Sha’Quan French wanted to do his part to help his team and when he took the handoff on the ensuing drive, he took the ball 70 yards down the field for the touchdown, tying the game at 14 apiece with 7:46 left in the third quarter.
There were then three different touchdowns in less than a minute of playing time.
The Red Tornadoes could get nothing going and were forced to punt the ball away, giving the Bulldogs the ball at their own 20-yard line.
Tito Jones kicked off the drive with a 10-yard gain on first down before Villarreal once again put the team on his shoulders and drove 29-yards to the Clinton 31-yard line.
Not quite finished and with plenty still left in the tank, Villarreal took the next handoff 27 yards and put the Bulldogs’ within five yards of their next score.
Villarreal got the call again and barreled ahead for a two-yard touchdown and an Altus 21-14 lead over Clinton with 3:35 left in the third.
After forcing a three-and-out, the Bulldogs returned on offense handing the ball to their sophomore running back Nehemiah McCaskill who took the rock 30 yards to the Clinton 29-yard line.
Vargas and Villarreal combined for 13-yards on two carries to get the Bulldogs in scoring position as time expired in the third quarter. Jones took the first carry of the fourth quarter four yards and into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game to put the Bulldogs up 28-14 with 11:18 left in the game.
Costly penalties allowed the Red Tornadoes to get into scoring position and back into the game after a pass interference, illegal substitution and personal foul put the Red Tornadoes at the Altus 21-yard line.
Unfortunately for the Red Tornadoes, the Bulldog defense tightened up their play and kept Clinton from getting much closer. The Bulldogs forced an incomplete pass on Clinton’s fourth down play and took possession of the ball at their own 25 with 7:22 left in the game.
McCaskill got the nod once again and did not disappoint, taking the handoff 20 yards to the Bulldog 45-yard line before a Villarreal run of 29-yards put the Bulldogs in a good position to score once again.
Villarreal took the following handoff 26 yards for a touchdown to put the Bulldog’s up 35-14 with 5:41 left in the fourth quarter, adding an exclamation point to his terrific night of just over 200 yards rushing.
“The first part, it was nerve wracking, but I got settled in. I could not have done it without my linemen, I just ran hard,” Villarreal said. “It might not look like it, but we were executing. We were shooting ourselves in the foot, but we came in at halftime and got our minds focused and came back out and got the job done.”
Villarreal, like Vargas, understood that the Bulldogs’ early struggles lay within themselves. During halftime, something clicked for them. When they came back out onto the field, it was a much different group than the one that had gone into the locker room down 7-0.
Vargas said that he anticipated that kind of performance from Villarreal.
“Yeah, I expect it from him. He came in last year and he wasn’t even a running back. We moved him there because he’s so durable,” Vargas said. “He is a great kid who works very hard and I am so proud of him, but I expect this from all of them, these guys work hard. From every position, yeah, I expect it from them.”
And in the second half, that is what Vargas received from his team.
They finally got hungry.
They got hungry enough to do what was needed and they left Clinton the same way they ended their 2015 campaign in Yukon, with a win.
“I’m just so proud of our kids — the resiliency they have,” Vargas said. “We ran those kids like torture this summer, even in the beginning we were running the dog out of them and I know they thought I was a crazy lunatic, but one of my goals was that we would be the best in-shape team on the field every night and we really felt like that played a big role in it for us tonight.”
The Bulldogs will host the Vernon Lions 7 p.m. Friday.
Reach Ryan Lewis at 580-482-1221, ext. 2076.