Bells defense clutch in opening victory

Jason Della Rosa
Herald Democrat
The Bells defense, led by Cole Moore (50), Aidan Brown (28) and Hank Weaver (52) get a stop near the goal line in the Panthers' 20-6 victory at Whitesboro to open the season.

WHITESBORO — Facing a defense which lost only one starter presents a question of how to attack the unit.

Even as most of the Bells Panthers stood in their end zone, there was confidence they would keep the Whitesboro Bearcats out.

“All we knew is we needed to stop them. We threw everything we had at them,” senior defensive tackle Drake Stephens said. “We gave it everything we had.”

Early in the contest and then in the fourth quarter, Whitesboro needed to gain one final yard to change the complexion of the game. In both instances, the Panthers held their ground and were able to finish off a 20-6 victory over the Bearcats in the season-opener.

“Our kids bowed their necks and got the job done. That shows everything our kids are about right there,” Bells head coach Dale West said. “And they do that two times. Just a really great effort by those kids.”

Bells was holding a 14-0 advantage late in the third quarter when Whitesboro fed Greyson Ledbetter the first six plays of a drive which led to third-and-goal at the one. A penalty actually gave the Bearcats three cracks from that spot but Ledbetter was stopped twice and a keeper by Jake Hermes on fourth down had the same result with Stephens making his presence felt in the middle of the line.

“I love that. It’s my time to shine on that,” said Stephens, who lived up to his billing as last year’s district Defensive Lineman of the Year. “They’re a really good team over there. I think it was getting to see where we’re at and how good we can be.”

The Bearcats ate up the first seven minutes of the game with a 13-play drive and faced third-and-goal from the one when Mac Harper tried to bootleg to his left but Canyon Payne stripped him. Lineman Paul Velten fell on the fumble so Whitesboro maintained possession in the red zone but the play lost 16 yards and the Bearcats came up empty on a missed 33-yard field goal attempt.

Grady Waldrip had 16 carries for 76 yards and a touchdown, Bo Baker added seven carries for 64 yards and a TD, Brock Baker chipped in 13 carries for 62 yards and Tanner Carter caught a touchdown pass from Blake Rolen for Bells, which overcame 15 penalties for 105 yards — more than half of them false starts.

"Half of the starting offensive line is new. We'll get that stuff cleaned up," West said. "When we needed to grind out yards and score we did."

Ledbetter totaled 75 yards on eight carries, Devon Price chipped in five carries for 25 yards and Harper caught a TD pass from Hermes for Whitesboro.

On the Panthers’ second series of the third quarter they went up by two scores, converting three third-downs — including a 13-yard run by Brock Baker on third-and-nine from the Whitesboro 18 — and Waldrip had a four-yard TD run two plays later with 1:27 remaining in the third.

With just under seven minutes to go in the game, Whitesboro's chance to get within a touchdown was thwarted when Keaton High intercepted a Harper throw to the left sideline at the Bells 37.

Bo Baker provided some breathing room on the ensuing possession when he broke loose on the right side for a 39-yard TD when 1:23 remaining and a 20-0 lead. It came two plays after he fumbled but Bells recovered near midfield.

Whitesboro avoided the shutout when Hermes connected with Harper along the right sideline for a 47-yard touchdown with 47 seconds left. Rolen recovered the onside kick to preserve the win, which was Bells’ seventh straight in the regular season — the longest stretch by the program since a 7-0 start to the 1997 campaign.

The only scoring in the first half came on Bells’ first possession and after the Panthers’ initial goal-line stand.

After the drive stalled short of midfield, a roughing-the-punter penalty extended the series and two plays later Rolen lofted a deep pass up the right seam for Carter, who had just enough of a step on a smaller defender to haul it in for a 46-yard touchdown with 1:34 remaining in the first quarter.

"TC's a really good receiver," West said. "He can go get it with the best of them. Blake threw a real pretty ball."

Each team had three drives in the second quarter and none of them came very close to producing any scoring.

The Bearcats had a pair of three-and-outs sandwiched around Bells picking up a first down before punting after Jacob Smith had a 58-yard punt which pinned the Panthers at their 11-yard line.

The next time Bells had the ball, Smith dropped deep into coverage and came up with an interception at the Whitesboro 38-yard line with 5:30 remaining in the half as the Panthers tried another big pass play.

Whitesboro got as close as the Bells 33-yard line before that drive fizzled with 46 seconds remaining in the half, allowing Bells to take the 7-0 lead into the locker room.