By BRAD KEITH
Photos by RUSSELL HUFFMAN
MINERAL WELLS (December 5, 2014) — Stephenville’s playoff journey was halted by a stalwart Graham defense at Ram Stadium Friday night.
Graham cornerback Landon Gonzales was a thorn in Stephenville’s side all night, intercepting two passes from Texas Tech pledge Jarrett Stidham, who previously had thrown just one interception all season. Gonzales, who came inches from a third interception, also returned a kickoff for a touchdown right after Stephenville had grabbed the lead early in the third quarter.
Graham won 35-24 and faces Argyle in the semifinals next week. Argyle held off a late charge by Texarkana Liberty-Eylau to win 45-42 in the Region II-4A Division I final, its 30th consecutive win.
Graham (12-2) limited the vaunted Yellow Jacket offense to 313 total yards. Stephenville (9-4) was also strong defensively, holding Graham to 357 total yards.
Stephenville led 21-20 after Stidham’s second touchdown run, a one-yard plunge on third-and-goal to cap the Yellow Jackets’ first drive of the second half. It came after a sack by linebacker Josh Gillespie halted Graham after driving to the 27 on the half’s opening possession.
The go-ahead drive covered 66 yards in 11 plays, highlighted by consecutive 16-yard passes to Darian Brown and Kaegun Williams for 16 yards each. Brown had four catches for 71 yards, all in the second half. Williams rushed for 83 yards and added 34 receiving.
Graham’s answer didn’t take near as much time.
Fielding a high, short kickoff, Gonzales made his biggest play of the game, maneuvering through a bit of traffic at the left hash around midfield then escaping down the left sideline for a 77-yard TD return. Quarterback Landry Turner escaped a potential sack and darted into the end zone for the two-point conversion, and Graham held a 28-21 lead it would never relinquish.
Turner was 12-21 through the air for 147 yards and two scores, hitting Derek Sides five times for 79 yards and a TD. Nick Martin had a workman like 140 yards on 29 carries and scored twice.
Stephenville drove right back down the field after the big return. Two passes from Stidham to Brown for 41 yards led the way to the six yard line, but a holding call on second down halted the march. Stidham and Williams hooked up for five yards on second down, but the Under Armour All-American was forced out of the pocket and had to throw the ball away on third and goal from the 11.
Fick finished Stephenville’s scoring with a 28-yard field goal late in the third, but trailing 28-24 was as close as Stephenville would get. Fick went 4-4 kicking field goals in the post season.
Graham answered with a nine-play, 61-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard TD by Martin. Stephenville appeared to have the drive stopped, but Weston Wenninger made a circus catch for a 34-yard gain to the Stephenville 15 on third and long. Turner was forced to scramble to his right, and just when it looked like he would be sacked, threw the ball up for grabs into a crowd. It was tipped around, and Wenninger came out of the pack with it.
Stidham was sacked for the third time to end Stephenville’s next possession, but the Jacket defense held up after allowing one first down. That’s when Jon Clark Giddings gave Stephenville reason to believe.
Fielding a punt at his own 30 yard line, Giddings weaved in and out of traffic and was finally drug down by the last man to beat at the Graham 11, a 59-yard return.
But Stephenville couldn’t cash in. A sack cost the Jackets 13 yards, and on fourth and 23 from the Graham 24, Stidham fired a pass into the end zone that was picked off by Gonzales.
Anthony Chavarria took over at quarterback and hit Ben martin for 24 yards on fourth and nine, then hit Austin Stufflebean twice for 29 yards tot he Graham 19 as Stephenville tried to pull within one possession late in the game.
But facing fourth-and-three from the 12, a Chavarria pass fell short and incomplete and Graham ran out the clock.
The steers converted three key fourth downs that led to two scores in the first half.
Stephenville led 7-0 after a 27-yard touchdown from Stidham to Stufflebean on the opening play of the second quarter. After a fourth straight defensive stop to begin the game, the Jackets gained 16 yards on a pair of runs by Williams, then went deep. Stidham dropped back to his 35 and launched a bomb into one-on-one coverage that came down at the Graham two – in the hands of Gonzales. He crossed the field in the end zone, then weaved his way back across to the Stephenville sideline. Stidham finally knocked him out of bounds at the Graham 41, or he may have taken it to the house.
Graham ran the ball nine times and scored to even things up on a 1-yard burst by Martin. He carried the ball six times for 43 yards on the drive, and the game was tied.
Graham pooched the ensuing kickoff, and when Stephenville didn’t field it, the ball took a sharp backward bounce, allowing the Steers to recover at the Yellow Jacket 30.
The Jacket defense looked to thwart the opportunity, but Turner scrambled for 20 yards on fourth and eight. After a bad snap moments later, he turned third-and-goal from the 21 into a touchdown with a strike to Sides.
Stephenville was quick to even things up with the longest rushing play by either team – a 33-yard TD by Stidham on an option keeper.
Graham re-took the lead on two-yard pass from Turner to Todd Parker with 13 seconds left in the half. The extra point was low and blocked.
Zoey Kendall intercepted a pass to halt a promising Graham drive in the first quarter, which surprised many by ending in a scoreless tie. Kendall’s pick was just the second by Stephenville this season, the other by Giddings.
It was the first meeting in 17 years between programs that squared off annually from 1970-89. Graham took a 17-16-1 lead in the back-and-forth series that dates back to 1924. It was the first time in 62 years they played in the playoffs.
Stidham finished his remarkable senior season with a hand in 50 touchdowns and more than 3,900 yards of offense.
Williams, just a sophomore, became Stephenville’s all-time touchdowns leader with his 50th against Big Spring last week. He finished with 1,555 rushing yards and 1,224 receiving yards, a total of 2,779 offensive yards.
It was the sixth quarterfinal in seven years for Stephenville under head coach Joe Gillespie. He is 22-6 in the playoffs and 72-23 overall.