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Cove snarls back from 21 down to nudge Tigers late, 37-35

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The Belton Tigers went into Friday night’s game at Tiger Field with the Copperas Cove Bulldawgs having already clinched a playoff spot and a home playoff game.

Copperas Cove needed a win and a Killeen loss to nudge their way into the Class 6A playoff picture.

The Bulldawgs were forced to overcome a 21-point deficit in the second half with 23 unanswered points over the game’s final 13:17, including a 21-yard field goal from Easton Simpson, to upend the Tigers 37-35.

The loss dropped the Tigers to 6-4 overall and 4-2 in District 8-6A play. Although the loss does not affect their playoff status, it is not the outcome the team expected.

Cove qualified for the playoffs as the fourth seed.

Both teams had trouble getting their offenses going on their respective first drives.

Belton scored first on a three-play, 67-yard drive that took just 54 seconds. Connor Carothers completed a 16-yard pass on a bubble screen to Anthony Fairbanks to start the drive. Darren Rector ran for 14 yards to set up a Carothers-to-Fairbanks 37-yard touchdown reception. Nyle Tabat’s extra-point gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead with 8:01 to play in the opening quarter.

Cove answered quickly, as they put together a four-play, 68-yard, 1:03 drive. Jaylen Smith connected with the talented Floyd Connell for a 41-yard touchdown. Easton Simpson’s extra-point tied the game at 7-7 with 6:58 to play in the first quarter.

Belton answered with a 35-yard punt return from Garrison Vaughn to set up their next score. Cameron Davis found Riley Brown for a 19-yard pass completion and later connected with Denver Holman for a nine-yard pass play. Rector’s one-yard plunge into the end zone and Tabat’s extra-point gave the Tigers a 14-7 lead with 2:47 left in the opening quarter.

The Tigers defense got a pair of stops from Vaughn and Mitchell Dunahoo to force a Justin Velesky punt. He dropped the punt on the Belton 10.

It was time for the Tigers’ offense to go back to work, as Rector and Dean Blomondville picked up copious amounts of yardage and Davis hit Chandler Vela for a 55-yard catch-and-run touchdown. The 90-yard drive took just over three minutes, as Tabat’s extra-point gave the Tigers a 21-7 lead.

Belton’s defense rose to the occasion again, as a 39-yard gain forced the Tigers to stand and fight the Dawgs from advancing into the end zone. Smith tried a screen pass to Mark Gastelo, but Devyn Raper knocked him out at the Belton 4. On fourth down and goal, Cove tried a reverse and pass into the end zone, which thrown low and incomplete. The Dawgs turned the ball over on downs.

The Tigers worked their way out of the shadows of their goal posts in the next two offensive plays from scrimmage, as Rector put together two consecutive bruising 12-yard runs. After a Carothers’ incompletion, Holman took an end around handoff and raced down the sidelines for a 74-yard touchdown. Tabat’s extra-point increased Belton’s lead to 21 with 5:11 to play in the first half, 28-7.

Devyn Martinez came up with a key stop on Tim Edwards’ six-yard run that saved a breakaway opportunity. Martinez then sacked Simpson for a 13-yard loss. The stop forced a punt.

Belton went three-and-out and Cove took over at the Belton 49.

The Dawgs took advantage of the short field, as Smith completed a 13-yard pass to Kaleb Honts and went up top to Bryce Ranes for a 31-yard touchdown. Simpson’s extra-point with 29.5 seconds to play in the first half narrowed the gap to 14 points, 28-14.

Cove got the ball to start the second half and Trey Berry made two pass break ups to force a Bulldawg punt.

Belton took the ball over at their own 42 and put together a 11-play, 58-yard, 4:34 drive. Rector carried the first four plays for a total of 17 yards. The Tigers got a critical fourth down and three conversion, when Carothers hit a wide-open Marshall Fish for a 14-yard complete. Six plays later, Carothers busted into the end zone from four yards out. Tabat hit the extra-point to extend the lead back to 21 points with 5:51 to play in the third quarter, 35-14.

Cove answered with an 11-play, 58-yard, 4:34 drive of their own. Smith hit Ranes for gains of 8 and 17 yards, and added a 16-yard completion to Connell. The senior receiver Connell scored on a two-yard run end around. Simpson’s extra-point drew Cove back to within 14 points with 1:17 to play, 35-21.

Kyle Stifflemire recovered the onside kick for Cove and ended up being a momentum changer. Smith hit Ranes for a 31-yard touchdown pass and Simpson booted the extra-point to cut the Tigers’ lead to seven points with 11:52 left in the game, 35-28.

A block in the back set the Tigers up on their own 9 to start the next drive. They kept the ball on the ground the entire drive, but a fumble was recovered by Cove at their own 36-yard line with 8:56 to play.

Smith found Connell cutting into the middle of the field and let a pass fly. Connell dove and caught the ball at the Belton 11 for a 44-yard gain. Dylan Taijeron’s 10-yard gain set up his own one-yard touchdown run. Berry busted through to block the extra-point, which kept the Tigers with a one-point lead with seven minutes exactly remaining on the clock, 35-34.

A strange play happened when one of the Belton returners did not realize where he was at in the field of play when he caught the ensuing kickoff. He knelt the ball down at the Belton 3, thinking that he was in the end zone.

A personal foul on Copperas Cove helped Belton to better field position, but the Tigers could not advance the ball past their own 27, forcing Logan Smith to blast a 44-yard punt out to the Cove 29 with 4:36 remaining in the game.

Copperas Cove took ball and drove down to the Belton 3, taking 4:04 off of the clock. Simpson’s 21-yard field goal off of the right hash gave the Dawgs a 37-35 lead with 32 seconds to play.

Vaughn’s 25-yard kick return set the Tigers up with first down on their own 30. Carother hit Vaughn with a 10-yard pass and Cove was assessed a 15-yard facemask penalty, which took the Tigers to the Cove 45. Carothers barely missed Vaughn with a pass on first down. On second down and 10 at the Cove 45, Carothers dropped back to pass and threw to the Belton sideline. Tommy Connell intercepted the ball and raced down into Belton territory with three seconds to play.

Cove knelt the ball and clinched the win.

“It’s very disappointing,” Belton head coach Sam Skidmore said. “You cannot turn the ball over late when you’re trying to close out a game and you can’t allow an onside kick. Our defense is going to have to play better than that.”

Skidmore was complimentary of the Copperas Cove resiliency.

“Cove performed well,” Skidmore said. “You have to give credit to Coach (Jack) Welch and his staff over there. They did a fantastic job and the kids performed extremely well. Our defense has to play better than that and our offense has to learn how to close out a game.”

Though the game does not have a bearing on next week’s game against South Grand Prairie in the Class 6A Division I Bi-District Round (Friday at Tiger Field, 7:30 p.m.), the fact this was a game that got away is not lost on them and they need to recover quickly.

“I told them that this game can define our season, or we can move on past it,” Skidmore said. “It’s up to that senior class, whether or not it will define our season or have a different result.”

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