ZEPHYR — The Blanket Tigers witnessed an early 16-point lead turn into a 16-point deficit just two minutes into the second half of their season opener at the annual Bulldog Bonanza. But in the sweltering heat of a August Saturday afternoon, which was only exacerbated by playing on a synthetic surface, conditioning came into play down the stretch — and the Tigers won that battle.
Head coach Tyler Tabor’s Tigers scored 30 unanswered points, tallying the final four touchdowns of the contest, to rally past the Chillicothe Eagles for a 54-40 triumph.
“I didn’t think it was going to be that way at halftime,” said Tabor, whose team trailed 34-24 at the break after racing out to a 16-0 advantage. “We were struggling, we were zapped and it’s hot out here. But our guys came out after halftime, sucked it up and really got after it.”
Perhaps the biggest key to the Tigers’ success was the number of players Tabor cycled in and out of the contest. Eight players recorded at least one carry for Blanket — which finished with 376 yards of total offense — while six separate Tigers caught at least one pass. A similar substation pattern was used on defense as well.
For Chillicothe, Denzel Graves had a monster game with 242 rushing yards on 25 carries and accounted for 62 percent of the Eagles’ 401 total yards. But by the fourth period, Graves and the rest of the Chillicothe players appeared gassed.
“It wasn’t until the fourth quarter it was evident,” Tabor said of the Tigers’ conditioning advantage. “Chillicothe started cramping up a little bit, and we sucked it up, got after it and pulled ahead in the fourth quarter.
“We knew coming in we had to play a lot of folks. I’d been preaching to them in two-a-days that we had to get a lot of guys ready because we were opening with a 1 o’clock game. I don’t know how many kids we played, but it was a lot on both sides of the ball. I’m real proud of their effort. The ol’ Tigers never gave up.”
Staring at a 40-24 deficit at the 6:21 mark of the third period, the Tigers’ comeback began when Chillicothe committed its only turnover of the game — a fumble on the Blanket 36.
Toby Florence, who completed 7 of 14 passes for 93 yards, immediately connected with Aaron Martinez on a 31-yard strike to put the Tigers on the Chillicothe 13. Three plays later, Eddie Hernandez, who rushed for 67 yards, scored his second touchdown on a 3-yard plunge to close the gap to 40-32 at the 4:42 mark of the third.
The Eagles went nowhere on their next drive and turned the ball over on downs, which allowed Blanket to start at the Chillicothe 17. Facing a third-and-14 at the 16, Florence broke free on a quarterback scramble and darted from one side of the field to other before eventually crossing the goal line. The two-point kick failed, however, and the Tigers remained behind 40-38 with 2:17 left in the third.
A holding call on Chillicothe’s next possession forced the Eagles into a fourth-and-26 situation, and Blanket’s defense held two yards shy of the sticks. With the ball back in the hands of the offense at the Blanket 37, a 21-yard run by Wesley Musick was followed by a 22-yard touchdown carry from Noe Valle — who led the team with 75 yards on the ground and three scores — as the Tigers regained a 46-40 advantage with 49 seconds to go in the third period.
Again Chillicothe responded with a four-and-out drive which put Blanket back in business at the Eagle 13. Valle needed only one play to cover the distance and give the Tigers a 14-point cushion, 54-40, with 9:12 remaining.
The Eagles possessed the ball twice more in the fourth period, but never advanced past Blanket’s 32.
In the first half, Blanket stuffed Chillicothe’s first two drives and answered with touchdowns to open a 16-0 edge at the 5:54 mark of the first period. Hernandez scored on the Tigers’ very first play from scrimmage, a 37-yard carry. Blanket then needed just three plays to march 35 yards as a 22-yard pass from Florence to Rodolfo Valle set up a 9-yard scoring run by Hernandez.
Though Chillicothe responded with 40 of the next 48 points to grab its own 16-point lead, Tabor pointed to Blanket’s quick start as being crucial to the Tigers’ rally.
“It’s a roller coaster game with so many momentum shifts, so many ups and downs, but that was huge getting up like that,” Tabor said. “You can’t prepare yourself for the length of a game in practice. You don’t play many long games early in the season, but playing lengthier games in the playoffs last year, that experience helped prepare us for this. We didn’t get too high or too low during the game, and that’s a real tribute to our players.”
Blanket (1-0) will attempt to notch it second straight victory next week when it ventures to Stephenville Faith, which is coming off a 57-0 opening win over Stephenville Huston.