By T. Scott Boatright
Big plays on defense sparked Cedar Creek’s offense Friday night as the Cougars roared past Winnfield 35-20 at Cougar Stadium.
Cedar Creek led 21-6 at the half but Winnfield looked to make a tight game of it as the Tigers marched 69 yards on 11 plays all the way down to the Cougars’ 11-yard.
But it took the Cougars only two plays to flip the switch — and the field — completely in the opposite direction.
On a fourth-and-two at the Cedar Creek 11-yard line, Winnfield’s Ja’Ven Jackson ran right but was trapped in the backfield as the football was stripped away, with the Cougars recovering the fumble for good measure.
On the next play, Cedar Creek’s Lane Thomas hit a wide open hole and raced 87 yards untouched to paydirt to put the Cougars on 28-6 with 1:37 remaining in the third quarter.
“Coach told us before the game we had to keep level the whole time – don’t get too high, don’t get too low,” Thomas said. “So I just kept working. The line did a great job all night and when I hit the hole all I saw was wide open field. I knew right away they weren’t going to get me on that run.”
That was Thomas’ second big-play of the contest. The first was a 77-yard scoring scamper that put the Cougars on top 14-0 at the 3:35 mark of the first quarter.
Thomas finished the night with 194 yards on 20 carries, averaging 9.4 yards per run.
But even after Thomas’ second touchdown burst, the Tigers didn’t back down but instead tried to pull back into the game.
A 45-yard pass by Winnfield quarterback Malachi Jackson quickly moved the ball down the Cedar Creek 18-yard line set up a Tigers’ touchdown two plays later to cut the Cougars’ lead to 28-12 with 24 seconds left in the third quarter after the two-point run conversion attempt failed.
Winnfield tried to sneak in a quick onsides kick after that, but Cedar Creek recovered but eventually being forced to punt.
But on the next play linebacker Quincy Lewis gave the ball right back to the Cougars as he picked off a Jackson pass that gave the Cougars the ball at the Winnfield 24.
Two plays later it appeared for a split second like Cedar Creek quarterback Caden “Peanut” Middleton might have been picked off on a pass to the end zone. But receiver Ladd Thompson grabbed the ball and wrestled it away from the defender for a 20-yard TD reception that pushed the Cougars’ lead to 35-12 with 9:36 remaining.
“I’d like to think I had it the whole time,” Thompson said. “He had it a little bit in his hands, but so did I. It was whoever was stronger — who wanted it more. Once my hands were on the ball I wasn’t taking them off.”
Middleton completed 7-of-13 passes for 120 yards and two scores.
But again, the Tigers tried to scratch and claw their way back into it, as a long kickoff return by Trey Starks set Winnfield up at the Cedar Creek 7-yard line.
Fullback Manuel Espejel then powered his way to paydirt before Jackson added the two-point conversion run to shrink the Cougars’ lead to 35-20 with 9:18 left on the clock.
After forcing the Cougars’ to a three-and-out offensive series, the Tigers took over at their own 43.
Winnfield managed to get as close as the Cedar Creek 40 before Lewis made another big defensive play — a fourth-down sack of Jackson — to give the ball back to the Cougars on the Winnfield 31 with 4:46 remaining.
But three first downs later — aided by a 14-yard run by Thomas along with 12 rushing yards on three carries by Austin Webb — allowed Cedar Creek to go into the victory formation and take a knee to seal the win.
Carter Hill opened the night’s scoring with a 49-yard reception from Middleton at the 7:46 mark of the opening stanza before Thomas’ first touchdown run.
Webb added a two-yard touchdown run at the 4:19 mark of the first quarter to make it 21-0 in the Cougars’ favor.
Thomas turned in as big a game defensively as he did on offense, leading the Cougars 14 tackles while Lawson Lillo added 11.
“That was monumental,” Cedar Creek coach Matt Middleton said minutes after the game ended. “Our back was against the wall at 0-2, against a bigger team — and those were some big boys — they were huge, like this is a huge win for us.
“We’ve got five home games in a row. We’re 1-0 this week. Let’s see if we can go 1-0 next week and pull ourselves back into this season.”
The Cougars will get that opportunity next Friday as they play host to Delhi at Cougars Stadium.
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