By Jason Della Rosa
By Jason Della Rosa
There was more than a moment or two when Denison could have had a bad thought.
Like when the Jackets gained only 20 yards on four drives in the first quarter as they fell behind by two touchdowns. Or when key penalties either hurt their potential scoring drives or aided Wylie’s chances. And after momentum swung on special teams.
Yet the resolve of this team has been tested plenty of times this season and Denison has yet to relinquish its spot at the top of the district standings.
"It was just being patient. It’s not always going to happen when you want it to," said senior running back Denard Whitfield, who totaled 180 yards on 26 carries. "We’re not going to go away. We’re not going away that easy."
Devon Blanton scored twice in the fourth quarter as the Jackets rallied in their first-place showdown against Wylie, remaining in control of their destiny after a 35-27 victory in 13-4A action on Friday night at Munson Stadium.
Denison (5-3, 4-1) can clinch its first playoff appearance in four years with a victory at Greenville on Friday and then set its sights on the top seed in the Division II bracket.
"It just shows the character of these kids and how they responded," Yellow Jacket head coach Chad Rogers said. "You got to find a way to overcome and handle it. I’m very proud of them."
Wylie (4-4, 3-2) scored with 1:58 left in the third quarter on a 79-yard swing pass from Carsen Cook to Alex Wesley to put the Pirates ahead 27-22 after the two-point conversion failed. What made it worse was that on the previous play Denison had a fourth-down touchdown catch by Jaleel Dade wiped out by a penalty (one of 15 flags incurred for 157 yards) and the Jackets were forced to punt.
It was the only time Wylie scored in the second half, however, and that allowed the Jackets to pull ahead to stay on their next possession.
"Our defense started rallying back, gave us some momentum and we rallied back," Blanton said. "Both sides of the ball had to capitalize on everything we did right."
Blanton, who finished with 160 yards three TDs on 22 carries, scored on 13-yard run for the first play of the fourth quarter but the two-point conversion failed, leaving Denison ahead by just one.
The Pirates would have four chances — three of them in Jacket territory — to either take the lead or force overtime but had two turnovers before a turnover on downs to end the game.
"When the pressure’s on….we’re ready for it," senior defensive end Garrett Hestand said. "Especially after the first quarter. Do the jobs that were assigned us and we’d be fine."
Derick Bennett recovered a punt muffed by Elijah Harris at the Denison 47 to go with an earlier interception after the Jackets were pinned at their two-yard line. Denison put together an 11-play drive capped by Blanton’s seven-yard keeper two plays after he earned a first down on fourth-and-inches at the 10 on a busted play that could have been stuffed for a loss.
"I knew it was short and I just went straight ahead," Blanton said. "I figured anything forward would get a first down."
Instead Denison opened a 35-27 margin that forced Wylie to get a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the score. The Pirates were in position on the ensuing series because two pass interference calls helped Wylie get to the Denison 13. A penalty on the Pirates called back a touchdown run and the next play saw a botched handoff that Sergio Orona fell on with 2:20 remaining.
Denison got a first down past midfield before Whitfield fumbled with 1:38 left and the Jackets had to make one last stand to preserve the win.
"Every time we get a little bit of breathing room, we make things harder on ourselves," Rogers said.
Wylie got to the Denison 31 before Hestand and Jacob Hunt combined on a sack and then Hunt followed with a takedown of his own. Two incomplete passes later and Denison had secured the victory.
In the first quarter Denison had four drives and didn’t gain a first down, earning just 20 yards while Wylie picked up 153 — including a 22-yard TD catch by Wesley less than a minute into the game. The Pirates scored less than a minute into the second quarter on Kameron Kelly’s three-yard touchdown grab and Denison was searching for answers down 14-0.
"They’re usually in a three-(man) front and they came out in a four front," said senior lineman Justin Guth, who had to shift from guard to tackle after Chandler Glenn was sidelined with an injury. "We had to figure it out."
Denison took control from that point on, outgaining Wylie 458-162 over the next three quarters.
"People are doing different things to stop us and the offensive coaches are doing a real good job of adjusting," Rogers said. "I thought we were very physical. We needed to be physical."
Blanton scored from three yards out with 7:56 left in the half to get the Jackets on the board. Whitfield scored two plays after Hunt recovered a fumble at the Wylie 12 with 2:51 remaining.
Wylie was forced to punt from its own end zone and a penalty gave Denison a safety, the lead and the ball with just under two minutes on the clock. Dade caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from Blanton with 56 seconds left, only to have Kelly return the kickoff 90 yards down the left sideline to get the Pirates back to within a point at the break.