POTTSBORO — The tenor of big games can change at any moment. In this case, it was set at the end of the opening drive when Pottsboro had a choice facing fourth-and-goal at the Gunter four-yard line.
The Cardinals could settle for a short field goal and put some points on the board, or try for a touchdown and if they failed the game it could have given the Tigers some confidence as well as an opportunity to take the lead.
But in a match-up between two of the best Class 3A teams in the state — Gunter as the defending Division II champ and Pottsboro as last year’s Division I runner-up — there was just one decision for the Cardinals. Be aggressive and go for the end zone.
"We play to win the game and not to lose it," Pottsboro head coach Matt Poe said. "That the type of decision right there that we feel wins ballgames."
Landon Dunaway’s TD catch in the right side of the end zone forced the Tigers to play from behind the rest of the night, Braden Plyler had a hand in four touchdowns and the Cardinals capitalized on four turnovers as Pottsboro defeated Gunter, 34-21, in non-district action.
Jett Carroll had 26 carries for 126 yards and a touchdown while Jake Kubik totaled 75 yards and a TD on three receptions for Pottsboro (2-0), which travels to undefeated Melissa on Friday.
Carroll, who is the backup QB, got the start at running back with Cooper Townsley sideline following an injury in the season-opener. The junior more than looked the part.
"He did a good job running the ball at quarterback. We didn’t know if Cooper was going to be able to play and we needed to find somebody," Poe said. "He did as good as we could have hope for."
Cole Lemons had six catches for 109 yards and a touchdown, Ethan Sloan added six carries for 63 yards and three catches for 41 yards and a TD and Ashton Bennett totaled eight carries for 60 yards and a touchdown for Gunter (1-1), which plays Whitesboro at Prosper on Friday night.
It is the second straight year the Cardinals have beaten the Tigers and Pottsboro is the only team to beat Gunter its last 45 non-district games.
Gunter pulled within a touchdown when it opened the third quarter with a five-play drive that took less than two minutes to make it 20-14. A free play thanks to an offsides penalty allowed Hudson Graham, who was 9-of-15 passing for 150 yards with two TDs and two INTs, to lob a throw in Lemons' direction for a 38-yard catch to the Pottsboro 14. On the next play Bennett got around the right side and dove into the end zone.
Pottsboro responded with a nearly nine-minute drive which lasted 18 plays and the home team finished with 74 snaps to Gunter's 43 and picked up 28 first downs. The Cardinals converted all four third-down chances, including Plyler’s one-yard keeper with 1:10 to go in the frame. He finished with 20 carries for 110 yards and two touchdowns and completed 17-of-23 passes for 190 yards and two scores.
Kubik came up with an interception in the end zone on Graham’s fourth-and-19 throw from the Pottsboro 32 and Major McBride had the big play on the ensuing drive — a 32-yard run to the Gunter 13 — and three plays later Plyler made it 34-14 on a four-yard keeper with 7:21 remaining.
The Tigers scored in just 17 seconds as Graham connected with Lemons behind a defender along the right sideline for a 39-yard touchdown and the margin was down to 13 again. But after a penalty on the kickoff, Gunter eschewed an onside kick and Pottsboro melted off nearly five minutes before the Tigers got the ball back. Jackson Lipscomb came up with an interception near midfield with 2:08 left to seal the victory.
After a half of frustration, the Tigers went into the break with some momentum. Sloan set up a touchdown drive with a 60-yard kickoff return to the Pottsboro 37 and after Ivy Hellman moved the chains on a fourth-and-one run with six seconds left in the quarter, Sloan hauled in Graham’s throw to the middle of the field as he was going left to right and was able to outrace Titus Lyons to the end zone as the clock hit zeros and make it a 20-7 Pottsboro lead at intermission.
"Their kickoff return right before half changed the game. If that doesn’t happen I don’t know if they score and then get back in the game there," Poe said. "Our defense was very good."
Gunter had only three possessions before that drive and two of them ended with fumbles. The first was at the Tiger 26, which the Cardinals turned into a touchdown, and the second was at the Pottsboro 16 when Gunter was trying to cut the deficit in half.
"Big games like this, if you win the turnover battle that can be the whole deal right there," Poe said.
On the other side, the Cardinals scored on three of their first four drives with the one that didn’t reach the end zone failing on a fourth-and-short fumble that resulted in a change of possession because it lost yards.
Pottsboro was driving when it faced fourth-and-inches at the Gunter 18. It was the third time the Cardinals had gone for it on fourth down and they would have converted but Plyler lost the handle on the keeper. Landon Simpson fell on the ball for Pottsboro but it was behind the line of scrimmage and the Tigers took over.
They picked up a first down but on the first play of the second quarter, Cole Bynum jumped on a dropped snap at the Gunter 26 and five plays later Carroll had a five-yard TD run for a 14-0 advantage. He scored a snap after Lipscomb’s 14-yard reception on fourth-and-three.
Later the Tigers were on the verge of getting on the scoreboard when Silas Barr fell on another Graham fumble at the Cardinal 16.
Pottsboro headed the other way and Kubik capped an 11-play drive with a 20-yard TD catch after Plyler hit him in the flat on the right side and he made a move and got a block to break loose. Mitchell Brewer blocked the extra point attempt and it was a 20-0 margin with 1:32 remaining in the half.
The Cardinals opened the game with that 12-play drive which covered 76 yards and ended with Plyler rolling right and finding Dunaway, who was able to get his feet down in the side of the end zone less that five minutes into the contest.