Denison loses in district opener

Jason Della Rosa
Herald Democrat
Lovejoy's Noah Naidoo fights for yardage against Denison's Dameon Smallwood (55) and De'Teaurean Johnson during District 7-5A (II) action.

At some point the Yellow Jackets are going to find a way to beat the Lovejoy Leopards.

But for the second year in a row, not only did the outcome they want not happen — it was an excruciating finish.

Sitting on a 14-point lead entering the final 12 minutes, up a touchdown in the middle of the quarter and staring at overtime with a minute-and-a-half to go, Denison was unable to close out Lovejoy, which scored three touchdowns to complete the comeback for a 31-24 victory over the Jackets in District 7-5A (II) action at Munson Stadium.

“It was a great football game except for the outcome,” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said. “They have a good football team and we have a good football team.”

It is the exact same score the Leopards, who are 7-0 against Denison since they became district opponents in 2012, beat the Jackets by last season, although that one needed overtime after Lovejoy rallied.

This game looked headed to an extra session as well. But with the game tied at 24 and and 1:28 remaining, Rogers made the decision to go for it as the Jackets faced fourth-and-one at their 29. Caleb Heavner’s sneak was short on a measurement and six plays later R.W. Rucker hit Luke Mayfield on a four-yard slant for the winning touchdown with 19 seconds remaining.

“I wanted to keep the game in our hands. It’s my call. It’s always the head coach’s call,” Rogers said. “I put our defense in a bad, bad position. I hate that everyone’s going to talk about that one play because of my decision.”

Rucker finished with 148 yards passing and two touchdowns and ran 10 times for 105 yards and a TD, Noah Naidoo had 34 carries for 110 yards and Reid Westervelt had eight receptions for 74 yards and a score for Lovejoy (4-0, 2-0).

Keleon Vaughn had a 103-yard interception return for a touchdown, Jadarian Price added 17 carries for 57 yards and a TD and Heavner connected with Keebler Wagoner on a touchdown pass for Denison (1-2, 0-1), which will try to end its two-game losing streak at Prosper Rock Hill on Friday.

Lovejoy scored less than a minute into the fourth quarter on Phillip Joest’s one-yard run and the Leopards were within 24-17.

Then they tied it on Rucker’s seven-yard keeper with 2:38 remaining. A kickoff return by Wagoner to midfield was called back on a hold, wiping out 30 yards of field position. The Jackets ran four times but couldn’t get 10 yards on what turned out to be the crucial possession.

In the fourth quarter, Denison had five possessions. The first three did not gain a first down, including the last of that stretch which came after a Wagoner interception at the Jacket 15 in the middle of the fourth.

“That’s completely in our control. You have to be able to get first downs,” Rogers said. “Leading in the fourth quarter, you’ve got to get first downs. We get just one and that’s at least another two minutes off the clock.”

The next series was the turnover on downs and then Denison had two plays to go 70 yards to try and force OT. The final play was an interception by Bo Allen.

The Jackets went up 24-10 at the end of the third on Price’s 10-yard TD run up the middle with 1:11 to go. Lovejoy had been pinned deep in its own end, punted from the end zone and the ball took a DHS hop backward to the Leopards’ 37 to set up the eight-play drive.

On Denison’s first possession of the second half, which lasted nearly six minutes and covered 80 yards, Reece Stange booted a 35-yard field goal.

Denison took a 14-10 advantage into half-time with all of the scoring coming during the second quarter.

Vaughn got it started when the Leopards had first-and-goal at the Denison 7. Lovejoy went with a wildcat package that put Naidoo in the QB role. Two runs gained a yard before Naidoo rolled left and tried to hit Brian Kolecki.

Kolecki and Wagoner battled for the ball, the tipped throw fell to Vaughn and he raced down the sideline for the fifth interception return TD of his career to give Denison a 7-0 lead with 9:43 on the clock.

It is the longest play in Denison history, surpassing a 102-yard kickoff return by Dave Burton in 1968 and the longest defensive touchdown had been a tie at 98 yards between Johnny Bolen in 1981 and Erick Harper in 1985.

The next time Denison touched the ball was after a 64-yard punt pinned the Jackets at their one-yard line. The distance wasn’t an issue as Denison went the length of the field in nine plays.

Osbourn picked up three yards on fourth-and-two right before Heavner connected with Wagoner deep down the right sideline for a 42-yard touchdown and a 14-0 advantage in the middle of the second quarter.

Lovejoy scored on its final two series of the half to trim the deficit to four points.

The Leopards had a seven-play drive capped by Rucker’s 11-yard TD pass to Westervelt on the right side with 3:41 left in the half.

A fumble recovery by Adam Eschler on the ensuing kickoff set Lovejoy up at the Denison 36.

The Jackets made a goal-line stand once the Leopards had first-and-goal at the two-yard line and Trent Rucker kicked a 19-yard field goal with 1:28 remaining until the break.

District 7-5A (II)

Lovejoy        31

Denison       24