AZLE — The Tioga Bulldogs may be destined for the 11-man ranks in the upcoming University Interscholastic League realignment, but they’re extending their stay in six-man for as long as possible.
Cade Kimbrell ran for three touchdowns and passed for a fourth and Marshall Lease threw three touchdown passes Friday as Tioga defeated the Blum Bobcats, 60-52, in a Class 1A Division I Region IV semifinal at Hornet Stadium.
Bulldogs head coach Cody Patton credited the Bulldogs seniors for overcoming a 36-30 half-time deficit to advance.
“I think the main reason we’re getting to play another week of football is our seniors just stepped up and basically said,’hey, get on our shoulders and we’re going to carry you,’” Patton said. “We were down coming out of half and they just came up and made big plays for us.
“That’s how you want your senior group to be and we’ve got a good one. This is a tribute to them, getting to play another week.”
Tioga (10-1) advances to the state quarterfinals to face Gilmer Union Hill, a 64-14 winner Friday over Coolidge, in a re-match from the same round last season — a Union Hill victory. It will be at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Prairiland.
Tioga jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, but Blum (10-2) came back to tie the game before the end of the first quarter, then scored twice late in the half to take its only lead of the night.
The Bulldogs regained control with three touchdowns in the third quarter, starting the second half with a seven-play, 42-yard drive that consumed the first 3:20 of the half. Kimbrell, who finished with 145 yards rushing on 32 carries, said the possession helped set the tone for Tioga.
“(Blum) had a lot of momentum coming out of halftime because they’d been shoving it down our throat,” Kimbrell said. “We thought shoving it down their throat a little, pounding it up the middle would give us a little motivation and tire them out a little bit.”
Tioga was just 3-for-13 on third-down conversion attempts, but went 5-of-9 on fourth down with four touchdowns.
Lease was 9-of-10 passing for 80 yards with TDs to three different receivers, while Kaleb Scott added 66 rushing yards and a touchdown. Josiah DeLeon caught seven passes for 64 yards and two scores.
Blum’s Logan Bellinger had a hand in every Bobcat touchdown in a game that went down to the final minute. On five occasions, Blum answered a Tioga touchdown with one of its own in less than a minute.
Bellinger rushed for 253 yards and five touchdowns, returned a kickoff 79 yards for a score and threw a TD pass to lead the Bobcats.
Blum finished with 330 total yards, but Tioga came up with two fumbles and stopped the Bobcats five times on fourth downs, three times in Bulldog territory in the second half.
“Coach (Terry) Wolf, our defensive coordinator, told the boys he didn’t like to see that many points on the team score,” Patton said, “but when you get into the playoffs, anything goes. You’ve got to step up and make those plays.
“It’s not going to be perfect because you’re playing against good teams. That’s why they’re still playing. The main thing coming out on top and winning the game.”
Lease led Tioga with seven tackles, while DeLeon and Scott each had five. DeLeon finished with two tackles for loss and a sack in addition to blocking an extra point.
“I think our confidence is better,” DeLeon said. “Our team spirit is so much better than other team’s. We are one family, we’re one group. We live and die together. I think tonight was a testament to that. It was an awesome experience. I’ll never forget this.”
The Bulldogs employed a wide variety of offensive sets, shifting from tight to spread to tight shotgun, all of which produced scores.
“Coach (Roy) Mejia, our offensive coordinator, does a good job,” Patton said. “(Blum) had some really strong, tough defensive players, so we threw a lot of those formations at them to see where their weaknesses were, then we attacked those. I think the offense and Coach Mejia did a really good job doing that. I’m really proud of them.”
Kimbrell broke loose for a 25-yard score on Tioga’s first offensive snap and Lease found DeLeon for a 9-yard touchdown to give the Bulldogs a 14-0 lead with 2:56 left in the first quarter. Blum rallied with two touchdowns just 27 seconds apart to tie the game. Bellinger hit center Alex Armendarez for a 45-yard TD pass, then ran for a 29-yard score one play after Coltin Gonzales recovered a Tioga fumble. Lease’s 29-yard TD pass to Seth DeLeon was followed by Bellinger’s 26-yard scoring run, and Kimbrell’s 16-yard score was followed by Bellinger’s kickoff return.
The Bobcats went in front on Bellinger’s 23-yard TD run with 2:17 left in the half.
Tioga went back in front on Kimbrell’s 6-yard run to open the second half and Scott popped a 39-yard TD run to give the Bulldogs a 44-36 lead with 5:19 to go in the third quarter, but Bellinger broke loose for a 42-yard score on Blum’s next snap.
Lease connected with Logan Scott for a 20-yard score with 3:08 left in the third quarter to put Tioga ahead to stay, but the Bobcats pushed the Bulldogs to the end. Kimbrell’s 24-yard TD pass to Josiah DeLeon with 1:35 to go was followed by Bellinger’s 29-yard run 26 seconds later, keeping Blum within eight points.
Tioga’s Nate DeLeon recovered Blum’s onside kick attempt and Kimbrell ran for 10 yards on fourth-and-6 with 15 seconds remaining to finally seal the outcome.
“We went into half-time down and we tried to find some execution we could do, so we came up with a new blocking scheme for the line,” Kimbrell said. “We started hitting the ground harder and harder. We’d continuously run and we’d catch them off guard every now and then with the pass.”