Str8 Jackets: Denison ground game keeps Ax streak alive
When the third quarter started the Yellow Jackets were losing to their rivals — a position they held for almost the entire first half.
Penalties and a pair of turnovers saw seven Denison possessions lead to just one touchdown. Moving the ball was a slog, a struggle and a chore against the Sherman Bearcats.
“We had to make it about us. Get everybody together and play together,” senior center Colton Mitchell said about the five new starters on the offenisve line. “There were some doubts out there. We had been making mistakes and didn’t execute as well as we could have.”
With the running back tandem of Jadarian Price and Asa Osbourn yet to get going, the Jackets decided to force feed the duo. On three consecutive drives, they touched the ball on 18 of 20 plays and turned a small deficit into a large lead on the way to a 41-23 victory over the Bearcats in the 122nd Battle of the Ax to open the season at Dr. Rene and Eva Gerard Field at Munson Stadium.
“I thought we were very physical in the second half. I told them we were going to run the ball and if we were as tough as we say we are, then we’d see the results,” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said. “I’m really proud of them.”
Price finished with 188 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries, Osbourn totaled 16 carries for 98 yards and two TDs, Keleon Vaughn returned an interception for a score and Jakalen Fields notched five sacks for Denison, which outscored Sherman 41-2 during a two-and-a-half quarter stretch.
“We knew we had to run down to the ball. Sherman’s got some really good athletes,” said Fields, a junior defensive end. “I felt like they couldn’t block us and we had to take advantage.”
Tate Bethel was 20-of-29 for 195 yards and two touchdowns and an interception, Benji Omayebu had five catches for 72 yards, Jacoby Hunt finished with four catches for 67 yards and a TD and Andrew Nehrbass totaled nine carries for 39 yards and a score for Sherman, which led 14-0 in the first quarter but then didn’t score another touchdown until the game’s final minute.
“We’ll bounce back,” Sherman head coach J.D. Martinez said. “We’ve got to get our lineman situation taken care of. We can’t lose out cool.”
It didn’t help that on Sherman’s first play of a drive with 8:40 remaining in the second quarter, Omayebu suffered a thigh injury on his lone carry and didn’t return until the second half.
Bethel went to the locker room with an ankle injury after he was sacked on Sherman’s final snap of the first half and Nehrbass didn’t play after the first drive of the third quarter. Defensively, end Nolbert Sibrian had a knee injury on the second snap against Denison's offense and didn't return.
It is the eighth straight Ax victory for the Jackets, which the longest winning streak by Denison over its rivals and surpassed the team’s best unbeaten stretch in Ax lore, which was a run from 1942-48 that included five victories and two ties.
It also is the third-longest winning streak in Ax history, behind Sherman’s nine straight wins across 1911-20 and the record 11-game winning streak from 1969-79 that was part of an overall 13-year unbeaten stretch (12 wins, one tie).
Getting the ball to open the third quarter, Denison kept it on the ground for almost the entire second half. Caleb Heavner, who completed 8-of-13 passes for 96 yards with a TD and an interception, made just two throws in the final 25 plays.
The Jackets took the lead for good with a 14-play, 60-yard drive that ate up nearly five minutes and was finished off by Osbourn’s three-yard run through the right side.
Sherman, which ran 37 times for 78 yards, went three-and-out and Denison responded with a five-play possession that covered 77 yards as Osbourn scored again from three yards out for a 27-16 advantage with 2:33 remaining in the third.
But the Jackets weren’t done in the frame. The Bearcats turned it over on downs at their 43 and Price scored on the first snap from scrimmage to expand the lead to 34-16 with 18 seconds on the clock.
Price closed out the Denison scoring in the middle of the fourth when he broke loose on a 42-yard run on fourth-and-five, the final play of the night for the Jackets, who at that point in the second half held a 236-36 yardage advantage.
The Bearcats found the end zone for the first time since the opening quarter when Bethel connected with Hunt on a 10-yard TD toss with 34 seconds left.
Sherman held a 16-13 half-time advantage. The Jackets were set to tie the game at 14 when Keegan Pruitt snagged a 22-yard pass in the back of the end zone with 6:37 to go in the quarter.
But the point-after attempt was blocked by Jeff Banks and Brandon Bonilla scooped it up and raced down the right sideline for the two points to keep Sherman ahead.
Dane Castleberry was inches from adding to the Sherman lead but his 44-yard field goal try bounced off the crossbar at the 4:30 mark of the half.
Denison’s first touchdown came on defense and it was the final play of the first quarter.
The Jackets had just punted when Bethel went to Elijah Chapman on the left side but Vaughn jumped the route for the 22-yard interception return which cut the deficit in half.
“We watched film of that all week,” said Vaughn, a four-year starter who now has 12 career picks and returned four for touchdowns. “It started the momentum going. It feels great to say we had the Ax the whole way through high school.”
Bethel had completed his first eight throws before the turnover.
“When Keleon got that pick it really woke us up,” Fields said.
The Bearcats jumped to a 14-0 advantage after Connor Clark recovered a fumble at midfield on Denison’s first possession. Heavner escaped pressure and found Vaughn for a 27-yard gain but Phoenix Grant swiped the ball loose.
Sean Husband closed out the ensuing drive with a six-yard reception in the right slot from Bethel and he dove into the end zone with 3:22 remaining in the first quarter.
Sherman went right down and scored on the opening drive, although the series almost never got going. After two plays lost a combined 11 yards, Bethel went deep down the middle and Omayebu came up with a 47-yard reception.
A third-down Denison penalty near the goal line came one play before Nehrbass scored up the middle to cap the 11-play drive at the 7:26 mark.
122nd Battle of the Ax