There’s been something about that 12-minute period following half-time which gives the Denison Yellow Jackets plenty of confidence and the Sherman Bearcats a sense of dread.
Last year’s Battle of the Ax, played just nine months ago, saw a close game at the break turn into convincing Denison victory thanks to a series of game-changing plays in the third quarter.
History repeated itself less than a year later and the Jackets also saw more than a glimpse of the future as they pulled away to beat Sherman, 41-16, in the 120th Battle of the Ax at Dr. Rene and Eva Gerard Field at Munson Stadium in the season-opener on Friday night.
Senior DeCurious Smith was the player in the center of the swing — coming up with big plays in all three phases — and scored twice while freshman Jadarian Price announced his presence with 14 carries for 141 yards and two touchdowns as Denison continued its personal-best winning streak in the series that now sits at six and one short of the school record of years with the Ax — behind only 1942-48, which includes a pair of ties.
“This feeling never gets old,” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said. “There was a little bit of uneasiness because it was the opener. What’s your identity? Who’s going to step up? I think those questions were answered and the kids showed they were very tough.”
Mike Brown paced Sherman with 25 carries for 137 yards and two touchdowns, including a late score that kept the Bearcats from their most lopsided rivalry loss since 1986. Three interceptions by Blaine Bentsen, all coming in the second half as he finished 12-of-33 passing for just 65 yards, aided Denison’s strong second-half effort.
“I told the guys to let it hurt. It needs to hurt,” Sherman head coach J.D. Martinez said. “But at some point the sun’s going to come up tomorrow and the coaches will wake up and go to work and so they need to wake up ready to work.”
It was just a four-point deficit when Sherman had the ball to open the third quarter. A TD drive would have put the Bearcats in front and put some pressure on the Jackets. The offense gained just one first down before Denison had a five-play, 76-yard series to take a 20-10 advantage.
Price had a 52-yard run before getting dragged down at the three and following a penalty he scored from eight yards out.
The next three Sherman possessions changed the course of the game. Zaelin Wimbish made a diving interception at the Bearcat 42 but Denison was unable to cash in the turnover and gave the ball back on downs after Sherman made a fourth-down stop just outside the red zone.
Smith stepped into the spotlight at this point, picking off a pass and returning it 20 yards to the Bearcat 15. It looked like Sherman would again keep the Jackets off the board with Denison facing fourth-and-eight. Cade Gordy was able to get a pass on the left side over a defender to Smith, who spun and bounced off a tackle attempt at the six for the touchdown with 4:48 remaining in the third.
“Everybody did what they had to do. I just did what I had to do. Everybody plays their part,” Smith said. “Whatever the coaches want me to do, I’m going to do it. Can’t back away from it.”
Sherman had a quick three-and-out and a dropped snapped on the punt allowed the rush to close it and Smith came up with the block. Javonte Briscoe fell on the ball before it went out the back of the end zone to give Denison the 34-10 lead.
“We had a great opportunity. We had the ball, put a drive together and make something happen,” Martinez said. “Two interceptions and a blocked punt and there’s 21 points. That’s where the difference is.”
Briscoe came up with the final interception early in the fourth quarter. The Jackets then had a grinding drive of 13 plays — all runs — with Smith punching it in from a yard out with just over six minutes remaining.
“Once we got in a rhythm, we were good,” Rogers said. “There was a feeling-out period. We have some great coaches that do a great half-time adjustments. And we will get better offensively. We’ve got very talented running backs like we did last year and Cade’s evolving as a quarterback.”
Brown capped Sherman’s ensuing and final possession with an eight-yard TD run as the Bearcats avoided the second-half shutout with 1:23 left. Sherman had just one completion in the second half and its first six drives after the break saw just one snap in Denison territory.
“They went fast and caught us off guard a little bit moving the ball in the first half and we adjusted some things with our defensive linemen. We put ‘em in a gap and just said ‘go,’” Denison defensive coordinator Todd Wallis said. “Just make a play and get some pressure and that’s where the turnovers came from.”
Denison held a slim 14-10 half-time lead when Joel Nandin kicked a 35-yard field goal as the quarter expired after Sherman made the most of the final 34 seconds when it took over at the Jacket 47-yard line. A pair of catches along the left sideline by Landon Cole and a couple of spikes to stop the clock allowed the Bearcats to cut into the lead before heading to the locker room.
The Jackets had broken the tie with a touchdown run from Price two possessions earlier. Sherman was stopped on fourth-and-six from the Denison 29 when Smith broke up a throw deep over the middle. The Jackets quickly went the other way and Price broke through the right side for a 37-yard TD with 4:33 left in the first half.
“I didn’t expect all of this to be happening. The offensive line opened up a big hole and I just ran through it. Then we did it again,” Price said. “It felt real. Being up in the stands, it’s not the same. Everybody cheering for you. I just wanted to do as well as I could.”
Field position was the name of the game for much of the first two quarters, highlighted by 50-yard punts from Nandin and Jayden Pacheo that flipped the field for their respective teams.
Denison had taken a 7-0 lead on its second drive of the night when it took over just past midfield. Pierce Barker capped the series with a 12-yard touchdown grab from Gordy by outjumping a defender on the right side of the end zone with 8:24 left in the first quarter.
The Bearcats immediately answered with an eight-play, 67-yard drive that was highlighted by Brown busting through tackles for a 31-yard gain before being dragged down just short of the goal line. He scored on a one-yard plunge two snaps later to knot the score at seven with 6:20 to go in the first.