Zaelin Wimbish had played in two straight Battle of the Ax match-ups, neither one of them close at the end. This was going to be different for the Denison senior.
He was now the starting quarterback, not just out there at receiver or safety or on special teams. He was going to guide the Yellow Jackets as they looked to stretch their winning streak to seven against the rival Sherman Bearcats.
And when he looked up early in the third quarter, Denison was clinging to a five-point lead. When he looked next to him, he did not see standout sophomore running back Jadarian Price.
The Sherman defense had risen to the occasion a couple of times already, including recovering a fumble on the Jackets' first series of the night went Wimbish couldn't corral the snap.
Price tried to go on a sprained ankle but one carry after he returned the second-half kickoff was his last of the game.
“We had to have the attitude of 'So what, now what, who's going to step up,'” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said. “We kept overcoming those types of situations throughout the game and that was the difference.”
So Wimbish had to take charge and he teamed with Asa Osbourn behind a veteran offensive line to make sure the Ax didn't change hands.
“I brought everybody in and we got in that right mindset. When JD went out we knew we had to step up,” Wimbish said. “Asa's been working hard every day. The guys blocking work extremely hard every day. Those guys are some dogs.”
Wimbish finished with 25 carries for 152 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 111 yards, Osbourn totaled 21 carries for 116 yards and the capping TD and Price was at 18 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown in Denison's 29-13 victory against Sherman in the 121st Battle of the Ax at Bearcat Stadium to open the season.
“Can't say enough about Zaelin. In a game like that he came up with some really big plays,” Rogers said. “And Asa came in and really ran hard, did a great job as well.”
The Yellow Jackets, who ran 66 times for 371 yards, continue to add to their longest winning streak in the rivalry and match their longest unbeaten stretch, a run from 1942-48 that included five victories and two ties.
Tate Bethel got the nod at quarterback for the Bearcats and in his first start was 16-of-28 for 209 yards and a TD while Jacoby Hunt totaled four catches for 76 yards and a score, Mike Brown finished with 16 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown and Sherman did not have a turnover.
The Bearcats had a chance to take the lead early in the fourth after the Jackets were forced to settle for a 26-yard field goal attempt that was wide right with 1:01 remaining in the frame.
“I felt really good when they were driving in the third and we were able to stop them,” Sherman head coach J.D. Martinez said. “I'm thinking this is the moment. I feel like we were in good situations. We were in the game. It came down to penalties, penalties, penalties and an inability to move the ball consistently.”
Sherman couldn't get anything going on the next series, Bethel was sacked by Javonte Briscoe on third down and a 19-yard punt gave Denison the ball at the Bearcat 35.
The Jackets got to the Sherman two but couldn't punch it in. Reece Stange made a 23-yard field goal with 8:35 left and put Denison up by two scores. Sherman did not gain a first down on its next three possessions, including after Aaron Ingram's interception set the Bearcats up at the Jacket 44 with just under five minutes remaining.
Osbourn scored on an eight-yard run with just over a minute left to fashion the final score.
“You've got to be able to throw and run evenly,” Martinez said. “It started taking its toll there. Their defensive linemen were able to disrupt some things.”
Price got the first carry of the third quarter, gained three yards and exited the game. But Keleon Vaughn had a 41-yard reception on the ensuing play and eight plays later Denison was on the edge of the end zone.
On fourth-and-inches, Sherman came close to finishing off a stand that began at first-and-goal from the four but Wimbish fell over the line on a sneak for a 19-7 advantage less than four minutes into the quarter.
“I just had to get the ball in. I had to get in,” Wimbish said.
The Bearcats answered immediately with a 72-yard drive. Bethel found Sean Husband for a 22-yard pickup and then scrambled for 12 yards on third-and-nine at the Denison 15. He connected with Hunt on a play-action rollout to the right on third-and-goal from the four.
The kick failed but Sherman was back to the point where a touchdown would give the home side the lead.
The Jackets took a 12-7 advantage into half-time on the back of a monster drive that was almost entirely on the ground. Denison went on a five-minute march that took 16 plays and covered 79 yards where just two were gained through the air.
Wimbish kept the drive alive with a 13-yard scramble on fourth-and-six at the Sherman 34 and he capped the series with a seven-yard keeper to the left, stretching across the line for the touchdown with 1:47 remaining in the half.
The Jackets went for two but the pass failed to keep Sherman within one score of regaining the lead.
It looked like the Bearcats were going to have a chance in the final minute of the quarter when Brown got past midfield on a screen pass. A penalty negated the play, however, and Denison tried to extend its advantage before time expired as the Jackets reached the Sherman 38.
Sherman had the lead at the end of the first quarter despite the Jackets' touchdown with 18 seconds to go in the frame. An option run from Wimbish to Osbourn ripped off 30 yards and Price bounced off a tackle with a second-effort 10-yard touchdown on the ensuing snap.
But the extra point failed for Sherman to keep a one-point advantage.
Both teams traded possessions to open the game but Denison's was the more costly switch – a bad snap after Price picked up 34 yards on first down led to a fumble recovery by Ivan Calvillo to give Sherman the ball in Jacket territory.
The Bearcats needed just six plays to cash in the turnover as Benji Omayebu had a 22-yard reception on a third-down screen pass and two plays later Brown bulled his way into the end zone from nine yards out in the middle of the first quarter.
“They came to play. They played their hearts out. You have to tip your hat to those kids and coaches because we knew we were in for a fight,” Rogers said. “Every time we had some adversity, our sideline got tighter, better. We were able to overcome some things and I was proud of that.”