The undefeated Gainesville Leopards looked to be in for a grief-free night against Burkburnett on Friday, Oct. 11, at Leopard Stadium.
The Leopards owned the past two matchups, taking both by a 25-point margin.
However, the Bulldogs had other ideas for this year’s tilt.
Burkburnett stayed close in the first half as the Leopards held just a three-point advantage, but Gainesville’s defense came up with the play of the game to start the second half.
A 35-yard interception returned for a touchdown by Gainesville’s Isaiah Gipson on the Bulldogs’ first drive of the second half gave Gainesville the 20-10 lead.
The defense pitched a shutout the rest of the game and the offense followed suit as the Leopards pulled away for the 34-10 victory to open district play with a win and to stay unbeaten at 6-0.
It was a minor coaching adjustment that led to the clutch play by Gipson.
“Burkburnett had run that play four times in the first half and he was playing on the line of scrimmage, which was leaving a huge void in the middle of the field,” Gainesville head coach James Polk said. “We kept telling him to scoot back. He finally did and then he jumped the play because he was where he was supposed to be.”
From that moment on, the Leopards played with more jump, but this time with more focus as they cut down on penalties and bad decisions.
“It was huge because it turned the momentum around,” Polk said. “You could just see it in their eyes that ‘you know what, let’s play.’ And they did.”
Gainesville’s offense was led by trusty senior running back Brandon Baker, who rolled up 201 yards on just 22 carries while quarterback Traylen Shinault threw for 183 yards and two touchdowns.
The Leopards had a stellar start to the game, driving right down the field in less than two minutes on just five plays.
Brandon Baker had a 14-yard run on the drive and a 20-yard run down to the 10-yard line.
Then, luck was on the Leopards’ side as Traylen Shinault’s pass was tipped by a Bulldog defender at the end zone before falling right into the arms of wideout Izaiah Baker, who was waiting in the back of the end zone for the touchdown.
That gave the Leopards the 7-0 lead with 10:37 left in the first quarter.
The Bulldogs had a lengthy first offensive drive of the game, mixing in a wealth of runs and passes before being forced into a 4th-and-5 by the Gainesville defense.
Burkburnett (2-3) had to settle for the 22-yard field goal to cut the lead to 7-3 with 4:52 left in the first quarter.
Gainesville looked to have a quick answer, but a 57-yard touchdown was wiped out by an illegal receiver downfield penalty.
The Leopards were forced to punt to the Burkburnett 20-yard line and their defense rose to the occasion on the next drive.
CJ Feagins picked off the Burkburnett quarterback Mason Duke and after a penalty on the play, the Leopards had the ball at their own 37-yard line.
Despite falling into a 3rd-and-18 hole, Brandon Baker exploded for a 56-yard touchdown run, outracing the Bulldog defenders to the end zone.
After a missed extra point, the Leopards took a 13-3 lead with 6:38 left in the first half.
The Bulldogs wouldn’t go quietly, however.
It took them just five plays to get to the Leopards’ 22-yard line and three plays later the Bulldogs punched in the 2-yard touchdown run to trim the score to 13-10 with 3:21 left in the half.
On Gainesville’s ensuing drive, Shinault was picked off on his own side of the field back to the Leopards’ 35-yard line.
Thankfully for the Leopards, their defense held on fourth down and went to halftime up 13-10.
Following up on its stand to close out the half, the Leopards’ defense delivered the biggest play of the game as on third down, Isaiah Gipson picked off Duke and returned it all the way back for a 35-yard return touchdown to push Gainesville’s lead to 20-10 with 10:28 left in the second half.
The Leopards continued to build momentum on defense as after the Bulldogs had quickly moved into Gainesville’s side of the field, the Leopards forced a turnover on downs.
Brandon Baker’s lengthy run quickly had the ball at the Gainesville 45-yard line, but the offense stalled and eventually turned the ball over on downs at the Burkburnett 21-yard line.
Burkburnett looked to have its offense in gear on the next drive, but the Leopards came up with their third interception of the game, this time by Draike Sparks at the Leopards’ 47-yard line.
It didn’t take long for the Leopards to land the kill shot as Shinault rolled out on 3rd-and-long and found Izaiah Baker for the 56-yard touchdown reception, his second of the game, down the left sideline to give Gainesville the 26-10 lead with 14 seconds left in the third frame after the missed extra point.
The Bulldogs converted one fourth down on their next drive, but they couldn’t convert two as an incomplete pass led to a turnover on downs at the Gainesville 38-yard line.
The Leopards then delivered their most consistent drive of the game, eating up yards and seconds off the clock at will.
Leaning on its ground game, Gainesville rumbled down the field on the legs of Brandon Baker, who moved the ball down to the 4-yard line.
Two plays later, Feagins capped off the 62-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run with 1:44 left in the game.
The 2-point conversion pass from Shinault to Tre Lawson gave the Leopards the 34-10 lead.
Patrick Hayslip can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @PatrickHayslip