By BRAD KEITH
HICO (September 30, 2016) — Forget just sniffing out a screen, Hico defensive lineman Jacob Crouch took it a step further.
Actually, Crouch took it two big strides further, intercepting a screen pass and taking two big strides to cross the goal line for a 3-yard touchdown on the return to provide the winning points for Hico (4-1, 1-0) in a 34-32 District 7-2A Division I thriller against De Leon(4-2, 0-2) at Tiger Stadium Friday.
The game more than backed up the hype. It was the Abilene Reporter-News “Big Country Game of the Week,” and because of the likely playoff implications down the line, was billed as arguably the biggest game on either team’s regular-season schedule.
De Leon quarterback Kevin Yeager came into it with plenty of hype, and the sophomore and son of head coach David Yeager backed it up with patience and poise in the pocket and a gifted delivery that led to a 17-27 performance for 286 yards and three touchdowns. He also has athleticism, shown on his six-yard TD scamper when no one could get open in the end zone on third-and-goal late in the fourth quarter.
Yeager finished the TD burst by lunging through a tackle at the goal line to pull De Leon within two points, but a two-point conversion pass was just out of the grasp of a receiver and Hico held a 34-32 lead with 2:39 remaining.
De Leon went with a pooch kick that Hico handled with a fair catch, and Tiger running back Jacob Smith plowed his way to a game-clinching first down. Smith rushed 19 times for 120 yards to lead Hico, which rushed for 253 of its 309 total yards.
Hico led 28-26 before the play of the game by Crouch. Yeager and the Bearcats were facing third and long from the shadows of their own goal post, making a screen or draw followed by a punt a strong likelihood. The Tiger defense was prepared for such, especially Crouch, who found himself directly in the path of the little lobbed middle screen attempt by Yeager. Crouch jumped, caught the ball with both hands, pulled it down, and eased in untouched for the short touchdown.
It could have left De Leon facing an even taller task, except the extra point sailed wide, and Yeager and company took over down by eight instead of nine.
Hico dominated the middle third of the game with a 22-0 run that ultimately made the difference. The Tigers were down 20-6 before touchdown runs by Cooper Conlee on a 18-yard sweep around the left end, and Smith on a five-yard burst off right tackle.
The latter, set up by a 55-yard Hunter Mullins punt return, gave Hico a 21-20 lead late in the first half. Yeager passed De Leon into scoring range, but sprinted to his left and tossed one up for grabs that Hunter Mullins intercepted at the Hico five. The Tigers kneeled out the clock and took the narrow lead into intermission.
Mullins broke free on a 60-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage in the new half, giving Hico a 28-20 lead. But Yeager and company were quick to answer, and his 18-yard touchdown pass and failed two-point conversion made it 28-26 midway through the third.
De Leon led 20-6 early on. Chris Cox scored the first points on a 18-yard TD run less than 90 seconds into the game, then Yeager delivered the first of his two touchdown passes, a 36-yard strike to Daniel Sanchez, who had seven receptions for 134 yards. The PAT failed after the second touchdown and point-after-touchdown plays would have a major impact throughout the night.
Hico answered the bell with Briley Johnson tossing a textbook 26-yard back-corner fade to Crouch. A missed PAT left De Leon leading by seven, and it was soon 20-6 with Yeager firing a 47-yard beauty to Orson Sylva.
But Hico came back, with Cooper Conlee finishing one drive with an 18-yard end-around along with a 2-point conversion to cut it 20-14, then the big Mullins return and Smith run complete with a PAT and 21-20 lead before the break.
WHAT IT MEANS: Hico still has Crawford and Goldthwaite remaining, but has positioned itself to battle those state powers for the top three spots in the district as Hamilton, Valley Mills and San Saba are unlikely to push the Tigers.
For De Leon, this loss, paired with the one last week when they fell to Crawford without Yeager, means they must hope for a win over Goldthwaite to avoid being the fourth-place finisher entering the playoffs. Like the Tigers, the Bearcats aren’t likely to have too much trouble with Hamilton, Valley Mills or San Saba.
WHAT’S NEXT: De Leon is idle next week then entertains Hamilton at 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 14, at Bearcat Stadium.
Hico visits Hamilton at 7:30 p.m. next Friday. It’s the annual Hamilton County Championship showdown.
TheFlashToday.com photos by RUSSELL HUFFMAN
Photos courtesy Dr. CHET MARTIN