In what was considered a must-win game for the Gainesville Leopards, on Friday, Oct. 16, at Leopard Stadium, they asserted their dominance early in the first half against the Burkburnett Bulldogs.
But a costly pick-6 gave the Bulldogs life as they trailed by just seven points headed to halftime.
Gainesville head coach James Polk pleaded with his team to show more emotion in the second half and they delivered.
The Leopards came out on fire, scoring the next three touchdowns of the game on the way to a 49-29 victory for their first district win of the season.
“I can’t be the one bringing the heat all the time,” Polk said. “I asked those seniors if they realized it was their last home game. Our offense calmed down and started simplifying things even more. I heard one of the players say that they could win this game without trying to overthink it.”
Gainesville’s defense had a terrific start to the game. The Leopards forced a Burkburnett 3-and-out punt to their own 33-yard line.
Gainesville (2-4, 1-0 district) needed just two plays to take a 7-0 lead. Junior running back Ivercyn Sanders ripped off one of his many long runs of the night. A 54-yard run by him put the ball at the 13-yard line, where senior quarterback Tre Lawson found wideout Robyn Hardin for a 13-yard touchdown with 9:42 left in the first quarter.
The Leopards’ defense flexed its muscles on the next Bulldog drive as they forced another punt to the Gainesville 33-yard line.
An 8-play drive was finished off by a 2-yard Lawson touchdown run to give Gainesville the 14-0 lead with 2:50 left in the game.
“That’s the goal every week,” Polk said. “When you get good field position, you’re relaxed and it’s a lot easier to call offense and defense. We had to get the win. We understand the position we’re in. The kids knew they had to win. We’ve got another big one next week.”
Gainesville almost added to their lead as the defense used a junior Jayce Morgan interception of Burkburnett quarterback Mason Duke to regain control.
Unfortunately, Lawson was picked off on the next Gainesville play.
Burkburnett (1-5, 0-2) put together a lengthy drive that culminated in a Duke 16-yard touchdown run. After the missed extra point, the Leopards’ lead was cut to 14-6 with 9:19 left in the first half.
Gainesville responded with a quick, 4-play drive as Sanders’ 26-yard touchdown run gave the Leopards a 21-6 advantage.
The Leopards defense continued its strong stretch of play as Sanders sacked Duke to turn the ball over on downs at the Leopards’ 11-yard line.
However, the Bulldogs got back in the game with a tide-changing play as Kellen Anderson picked off Lawson and returned it for a touchdown.
A successful 2-point conversion trimmed the Leopards’ lead down to just seven points at 21-14 with 1:50 left in the game.
Despite the swing of momentum, Polk said he wasn’t too worried about his team.
“I felt good after the pick-6,” Polk said. “He just made a bad read he’s only been playing quarterback three games. You could just see it in the game that we looked well prepared. Sometimes you just get a feeling and you can see it.”
Gainesville tried to add points before the half, but Michael Fernandez missed the 26-yard field goal as time expired.
As well as Burkburnett played late in the half to turn the game around, the Leopards instantly stole back the momentum to begin the second half.
Gainesville returned the kickoff to the Bulldogs’ 7-yard line.
Lawson then scrambled around for a 7-yard touchdown to push the Leopards’ lead back to two possessions at 28-14 just eight seconds into the half.
The Leopards’ defense clamped down again and forced a Burkburnett 3-and-out. Gainesville then used an 8-play drive to extend their lead to 35-14 as Lawson hooked up with Hardin for the second time of the game for a 12-yard touchdown with 7:05 remaining in the third quarter.
Junior defensive back Cason Evans delivered the first of his two interceptions and Gainesville needed just seven plays to inflate its lead to 42-14 as junior running back Jayce Morgan punched in the 3-yard touchdown with 3:35 left in the third frame.
“I thought the defense played good,” Polk said. “We missed a few tackles and we didn’t do well on third down in the first half, but we responded in the second half and shut those third-down passes down.”
After Burkburnett scored with 26 seconds left in the third to trim the lead to 42-21, Evans came up with his second pick and the Leopards methodically marched down the field on a 9-play drive that was polished off by a 2-yard touchdown run by senior running back Tony Ochoa.