If the 119th Battle of the Ax had been a boxing match, it would have been ruled a technical knockout in the third round.
The Denison Yellow Jackets and Sherman Bearcats traded punches for 2½ quarters Friday at Bearcat Stadium before Denison landed a series of haymakers to take a 49-24 victory, the fifth in a row for the Yellow Jackets — which sets the mark for their longest winning streak in the series, surpassing four-year runs from 1945-48 and 1963-66.
Trailing 17-14 midway through the third quarter, Denison scored four touchdowns in the final 5:01 of the quarter — three in the final 2:10 — to blow the game open.
“I was really proud of them,” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said of his players. “We put the challenge out there to be remembered for something. They said 'you're not going to run the ball' and we showed we could run the ball.”
Both teams were already qualified for the playoffs out of District 5-5A. Denison (8-2, 5-1) will advance as the No. 1 seed in the Division II bracket and play Saginaw Boswell at 7 p.m. Friday at Denton's Apogee Stadium. Sherman (5-5, 3-3) will be the No. 2 seed in the Division I bracket and play Haslet Eaton on Friday at Flower Mound High School's Neal Wilson Athletic Stadium. Game time is to be determined.
Denison finished with 348 of it 494 total yards on the ground. Bubba Roberts rushed for 147 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries, while Ty McFail added 126 yards and three scores on 11 carries.
“We have to thank the line and the h-backs because we couldn't do what we do without them,” said McFail, who scored on runs of 50 and 47 yards in the final 94 seconds of the third quarter. “When we have each others backs we can do great things.”
“When you keep beating on the door it's going to break. We're a second-half team and been one all year and we showed it right there.”
Yellow Jackets quarterback Austin Emery added 57 yards and a touchdown rushing and was 9-of-12 passing for 146 yards. Cayden Earnhart caught four passes for 95 yards.
Before Denison's eruption, Sherman did its part in making the game live up to its rivalry status. The Bearcats kicked a field goal on their first possession and twice answered Denison touchdowns with TDs of their own to regain the lead.
“Our defense was playing amazing,” Sherman head coach J.D. Martinez said. “They were playing lights out. We had that first drive, went down there and took care of business.
“After that, offensively, they were forcing us to throw and we couldn't complete them. We kept getting penalties and putting ourselves in bad situations, always behind the chains. It was pretty difficult to overcome those things.”
Sherman was penalized 14 times for a season-high 133 yards, committing six 15-yard fouls. The Bearcats finished with 397 total yards as Blaise Bentsen completed 18-of-31 passes for 238 yards and a score to Tylor Jones, who had career highs with nine receptions for 164 yards and the TD.
Nathaniel Omayebu added 99 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries and Bentsen added a rushing touchdown.
“We were locked in and ready to go from the start,”Omayebu said. “I don't know what happened, but we're going to bounce back from this and get ready to win a bi-district championship.”
After stopping Denison on downs at the Sherman 39 on the game's opening possession, the Bearcats marched 59 yards in 14 plays, but had to settle for Joel Nandin's 19-yard field goal after having a first down inside the Yellow Jacket 1-yard line.
That held up until the middle of the second quarter, when Emery capped a 10-play, 79-yard drive with his 7-yard keeper. Sherman committed two penalties that kept the drive alive — a personal foul after Emery's third-down pass fell incomplete and pass interference that gave Denison first-and-goal at the nine after a holding call left the Yellow Jackets facing second-and-17.
Sherman responded with Bentsen's 30-yard touchdown pass to Jones with 3:38 left in the half, but Roberts scored on a 7-yard run to give Denison a 14-10 halftime lead. Earnhart had a 28-yard reception on third-and-9 to get the drive going and DeCurious Smith had an 11-yard catch to convert on fourth down from the Sherman 25 to set up the score.
Sherman regained the lead on the opening drive of the third quarter on Bentsen's 1-yard keeper. Jones' 42-yard catch on third-and-14 from the Denison 49 was the key play as Sherman converted two third downs and a fourth down on the drive.
“We had to strive to play at that point in time,” said Sherman linebacker Cody Hunter, who had 10 tackles (Austin Bindel led Sherman with 13). “Everybody's head was up. We had a goal set. We were focused on winning. We were still stuck in the game. It just pushed us to keep working and get the lead and try to keep it. Sadly, that didn't happen.”
Denison regained the lead for good on Roberts' second touchdown, a 5-yarder that was set up by Pierce Barker's 18-yard reception on fourth down from the Bearcat 25.
The game turned Denison's way as Sherman went three-and-out on its next series with a dropped third-down pass forcing the Bearcats to punt. Earnhart's 52-yard catch and run led to McFail's first score on a 7-yard run, then the Yellow Jackets delivered the knockout blows.
Smith's interception on Sherman's next play was followed by McFail's 50-yard score with 1:34 left in the quarter. That was followed by a quick three-and-out for the Bearcats and McFail went 47 yards on the next snap as time expired, giving Denison a 42-17 lead.
“I think it's the physical training,” Rogers said of the surge. “Our strength and conditioning program is outstanding. It's the way we've been all season. I think they respond so well to each other. That's what these kids do. They're a football team.
“I felt really good about our half-time adjustments. We knew the kids would respond on both sides of the ball.”
Martinez said Sherman's inability to maintain possession played into Denison's favor.
“Our defense was out there a long time,” he said. We've got to be able to convert and stay ahead of the chains and do better things offensively. Defensively, we can't let ourselves get tired.”
Things could have been worse, but Roberts fumbled at the Sherman 2 in the fourth quarter. The Bearcats went 98 yards in 11 plays for Omayebu's 5-yard TD run as Jones pulled in a 55-yard pass and Michael Wallace converted on fourth-and-15 with a 20-yard reception.
Denison needed just two plays to answer as Roberts broke loose for a 56-yard score with 3:08 remaining.