CORSICANA — The Melissa Cardinals stormed to 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points on Friday to dispense with pesky but turnover-prone Rusk, 56-34, in a Class 4A Division II Region II area round match-up at Tiger Stadium.
The Cards (11-1) rolled to 403 yards on the ground led by Ja’Bray Young’s team-high 137 yards and three touchdowns — including a 54-yard scoring scamper in the second quarter — while quarterback Brendon Lewis cruised for 120 yards and accounted for five touchdowns, with three coming via the pass.
The Eagles (9-3) countered with speedy Sam Thomas who roamed for a game-high 168 yards with touchdowns runs of 64 and 66 yards, the latter coming on the first play of the second half. Rusk quarterback Darrian McDuff added 91 yards rushing on 18 carries with one TD and another through the air.
All told, the Cardinals forced six turnovers, including four fumbles and two picked-off passes.
With the victory, Melissa established a new school record for consecutive wins in a single season — 11 — and will face Gilmer (10-2) in the regional semifinals at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Mesquite’s Memorial Stadium.
“Rusk is a dang good football team,” Melissa head coach Seth Stinton said. “It’s hard to say anything bad about them. They have some weapons and some great athletes. They did some things to us that we hadn’t seen. Obviously, that’s what good coaches do and what good football teams do.”
Melissa rallied to tie from a touchdown behind three times in the first half before taking its first lead, 28-22, on Lewis’ 5-yard run 8:45 before halftime, a lead the Cards would take into the break.
Rusk opened strong in the second half, striking with Thomas’ 66-yarder seconds into the third quarter and another touchdown on its next possession. With Melissa down, 34-28, midway through the third, a crucial fourth-down roughing-the-passer-penalty kept a Cards drive alive after Lewis’ pass had fallen incomplete. Three plays later Lewis’ 21-yard dash to the end zone gave Melissa the lead for good, 35-34.
In the final stanza, the Cards closed it out with Young’s 27-yard touchdown run and Lewis scoring strikes to Cole McCraw and Chance Mapps.
“I thought our kids did a great job. We didn’t freak out, panic, go, ‘What’s going on?’ or any of that other mess,” Stinton said. “We came out in the second half and created a couple of turnovers. That was the difference in the game to me.”
Melissa suffered two turnovers in the first quarter as the Eagles forged a 14-8 lead. The Cards lost a fumble on their first possession which led to Rusk’s first touchdown and an interception ended another Melissa drive at the Eagle 25. A 32-yard Lewis-to-Junior Castleberry dart over the middle provided the Cards’ first points.
As for the Melissa’s coming showdown with Gilmer, the Buckeyes hold a 3-0 edge in the series — including last year’s 55-6 win in the area round. Gilmer is coming off a 63-14 victory over Caddo Mills.
“I’m just excited we get to go play them,” Stinton said. “I’m proud of our kids and I think we owe them one. We’ll be ready.”