LUCAS — With a chance to wrap up a playoff spot, the Yellow Jackets let the opportunity get away from them.
Unable to hold off the Lovejoy Leopards, who tied the game in the fourth quarter and lost starting quarterback R.W. Rucker in the process, Denison was trying to overcome the loss of two-way starter Keleon Vaughn.
Bo Allen’s 14-yard touchdown catch in the left side of the end zone from Noah Naidoo proved to be the difference when the Jackets couldn’t match on their overtime possession as Lovejoy defeated Denison, 31-24, in District 7-5A (II) action.
“The kids played hard. They stuck together and never gave up,” Jackets head coach Chad Rogers said. “That’s all you can do. It’s gut-check time.”
Caleb Heavner completed 16-of-21 passes for 213 yards and three touchdowns and ran 16 times for 49 yards, Jadarian Price had 32 carries for 142 yards, Cayden Earnhart grabbed a pair of passes for 46 yards and two TDs and Vaughn had four catches for 81 yards and a score for Denison (6-3, 5-2), which is facing the prospect of missing out on the playoffs due to a tie-breaker for the second straight season. The Jackets need to beat Denton Braswell at Munson Stadium on Friday to clinch their third postseason berth in four years or they can get in if Frisco Reedy loses against Princeton. If Denison loses and Reedy wins, then the Lions hold the tie-breaker for the district’s final playoff spot.
Rucker completed 16-of-28 passes for 295 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions and also ran for a score while Reid Westervelt finished with six catches for 171 yards and a TD for Lovejoy (7-2, 6-1), which remained tied with Frisco and Denton Braswell in first place. The winner between Lovejoy and Frisco will earn at least a share of the title or get it outright if the Jackets top Braswell.
Denison, which finished with 482 yards, took a 24-10 lead in the middle of the third quarter. After forcing a three-and-out to open the second half, the Jackets marched 12 plays and took almost four minutes off the clock. The drive nearly came up empty but Heavner threaded a pass between two defenders to Earnhart for a 27-yard touchdown on fourth-and-16.
By the end of the quarter Lovejoy, which had just 21 yards on 24 carries, was back within a score as Westervelt hauled in a 72-yard TD pass from Rucker with 50 seconds remaining in the frame. It was a doubly costly play for Denison as Vaughn was injured on the landing after a leaping attempt at the pass and he did not return.
The score remained that way until Rucker’s fourth-and-goal run from the three with 5:28 remaining. He was injured diving for the end zone after going around the left end and missed the rest of the game.
Denison had a pair of drives into Leopard territory in the fourth quarter that could have provided the winning points. The first possession came after Westervelt’s touchdown and the Jackets got to the Lovejoy 31 before things stalled and a penalty led to a turnover on downs.
With 2:36 remaining in the game, Denison took over at its 20 following a punt and in four plays was at midfield. Price then picked up 16 yards before a completion to Keegan Pruitt was called back due to a illegal block downfield. The Jackets turned the ball over on downs at the 26 with 36 seconds left, leading to overtime.
The Jackets were able to take a 17-10 lead into the locker room on a touchdown in the final minute of the half.
Denison started the drive at its own 23 when Landon Ellis wrestled away a deep pass for his second interception of the night.
Heavner kept the drive going by tiptoeing down the left sideline for a 31-yard gain into Lovejoy territory as the Jackets faced third-and-11.
Six plays later Heavner hit Earnhart up the right seam for a 19-yard touchdown with 34 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
Lovejoy flipped the field on a 55-yard punt from its end zone in the middle of the frame but Denison was able to come away with the points. The first snap was a 44-yard completion to Vaughn before the series stalled after it was first down at the 15-yard line.
Reece Stange kicked a 25-yard field goal, his ninth of the season, with 3:58 left in the quarter to tie the game at 10.
The Leopards had taken their first lead late in the first quarter. A 10-play drive, kept alive by a 25-yard screen pass early and a pass interference penalty late, set up Tyler Loop’s 27-yard field goal with 20 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Both teams followed with turnovers. Lovejoy recovered a fumble at the Denison 44 but Ellis picked off a throw at the left sideline on the first play of the Leopards’ ensuing possession.
Denison opened the game with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. The first 10 snaps were all runs before Heavner connected with Vaughn deep over the middle for the 35-yard score.
The Leopards used a big pass to even the score. Westervelt hauled in a 67-yard pass along the right sideline, shedding a tackle to get get down to the three-yard line and two snaps later Dillon Magee barreled in from the one for a tie game with 6:09 remaining in the first.