TIOGA — The Bulldogs didn’t have to play a full 40 minutes very often in the regular season, ending seven of their eight victories early on the 45-point rule.


That’s changed in the playoffs with both bi-district and area games going the distance, but they have been up to the task. Tioga head coach Cody Patton said last week’s 60-52 victory over Blum, in which the Bulldogs had to recover an onside kick and convert a fourth down in the final 70 seconds in order to run out the clock, was a significant step forward.


“I think it kind of worked to our advantage because it taught our kids that we might look up and they score in one play, but if we stick with it and do our jobs, we can still overcome that and be winners at the end,” Patton said. “It put us kind of on the ropes going into half being down six points. That’s when it’s kind of a gutcheck time to decide who really wants this or are we going to fold the tent and let them go ahead and take it.”


Patton credited Tioga’s five seniors — Josiah DeLeon, Cade Kimbrell, Yancy Klohn, Javier Rivera and Logan Scott — in setting the tone.


“Every one of our seniors stepped up and made big plays,” Patton said. “Not to say we didn’t have some underclassmen make some big plays, too, but those seniors, you always want them kind of leading the charge and leading by example.”


Klohn, a defensive end and kicker, said the Bulldogs learned the value of perseverance.


“We were in the locker room and it kind of dawned on us that it could be our last game ever at Tioga for six-man,” Klohn said. “Thinking about it just makes you want to fight even harder. There’s always a chance for everything. Go in and just try it. There’s probably going to be a positive result if everyone goes 100 percent.”


Tioga (10-1) looks to extend its season another week at 7:30 p.m. tonight in a Class 1A Division I state quarterfinal against Gilmer Union Hill (11-0) at Prairiland. The game is a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal, which Union Hill won 60-12. Friday’s winner advances to the state semifinals to face the winner of Friday’s game between Jonesboro and May.


“One big thing last year that hurt us a lot is the turnover battle,” Patton said. “Their special teams were better than ours and we had three or four turnovers on onside kicks. At the start of the game, we were the first ones to score and I think we could have matched them a little bit better score for score, but when you’re not getting the ball but every third possession and they’re getting it two possessions, that hurt us big time.


“We’re definitely focusing on special teams, executing on offense and, of course, they’ve got the same back they had last year and he’s a good one. We’re going to have to hustle and get everyone to the football and try to team tackle with six.”


While Tioga has had a handful of seniors the past two seasons, this year’s class is the first to come all the way up through the program. Klohn said the experience the Bulldogs, most of whom are in their third or fourth varsity season, have gained puts them on more equal footing heading into Friday’s game.


“When I started out, I was a sophomore on varsity,” Klohn said. “Facing a senior was like, ‘Whoa! I’m facing upperclassmen.’ Knowing that you’re that upperclassman, you don’t want an underclassman disrespecting you. You want to show them who’s boss.


“We’re an older team, predominantly seniors. The seniors know it could be the last game for their whole life. It just makes you want to fight even harder because you want to keep going to the big game.”


Once again, Patton said, it will be up to Tioga’s seniors to lead the way.


“This group of seniors, and I’ve said this from Day 1 of practice out there, I told them we had a special team and it was because of their leadership,” Patton said. “But I think the characteristic that goes with these seniors more than any group that we’ve had here is their work ethic.


“We’ve had seniors in the past that were really hard workers, but as far as the whole group with everybody on the same page and giving it everything they’ve got, we’ve always had one or two kind of jump off the ladder. But every one of these seniors that we have this year are still climbing that ladder and getting after it and giving it everything they’ve got. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been as successful as we have this year.”


Despite having so many early finishes, Tioga enters Friday averaging 234.9 yards and 51 points per game. Kimbrell has rushed for 1,528 yards and 31 touchdowns with Kaleb Scott adding 749 yards and 15 TDs. Quarterback Marshall Lease (25-34-0 427 yards, 9 TDs passing) and Kimbrell (20-37-2 267 yards, 6 TDs) have Josiah DeLeon (26-478, 8 TDs) and Seth DeLeon (10-184, 4 TDs) as the main receivers.


Defensively, Tioga has allowed 135.5 yards and 23.2 points per game. Lease leads the team with 93 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, eight fumble recoveries and two interceptions, both of which were returned for scores. Josiah DeLeon (77 total tackles, 25 TFL, 3 fumble recoveries), Kaleb Scott (67 total tackles, 8 TFL, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 interception) and Seth DeLeon (58 total tackles, 6 TFL, 5 interceptions) have also been impact players.


Union Hill is averaging 67.1 points per game while allowing 21.1 with 10 victories coming by the 45-point rule. Gabe Nelson, who rushed for 258 yards and four touchdowns against Tioga last year, and Colt Mallory give Union Hill a solid 1-2 punch on both sides of the ball. Nelson has rushed for 1,706 yards and 42 TDs, passed for 242 yards and six TDs, made 61 tackles and intercepted two passes. Mallory adds 988 yards and 15 TDs rushing, 350 yards and seven TDs passing, and leads the team with 93 tackles.


Patton said Tioga must be ready to adjust to a variety of offensive looks from Union Hill.


“Coach (Shane) Mallory has a balanced attack,” Patton said. “He’ll spread you out if he thinks he’s not getting as much out of the tight formations. Then they’ve got a pretty balanced attack as far as passing the ball and running the ball. We’re going to have to be on our toes and make sure we read our keys.”