Bearcats back in semifinals for first time in decades

Ruston ran past Denham Springs 49-31 Friday night in quarterfinal action. (Photo by Reggie McLeroy)

By T Scott Boatright

DENHAM SPRINGS — It looked like a cross between a heavyweight slugfest and an Olympic track meet.

And the end result was history more than 20 years in the making, even if “Old Mo” didn’t make it easy.

For the first time since 1999, the Ruston Bearcats have punched their tickets to the state football semifinals as they traveled down south and held on to defeat Denham Springs 49-31 Friday night during a game in which momentum danced across the field between sidelines with the frenetic feel of Jennifer Beals’ workout performance in the 1983 movie “Flashdance.”

And now the Bearcats are one game away from their first “Big Dance” since falling to West Monroe in the 1999 semifinals.

Ruston (13-1), the top seeded-team in Division I Non-Select School postseason play, will next take on Zachary (10-2), the defending Class 5A state champion that defeated Southside 48-27 Friday night.

“Denham Springs is a good football team and I knew they were going to play hard for all four quarters,” Ruston head coach Jerrod Baugh said. “They kind of caught us in some bad spots and got the ball to some really good playmakers that made some plays.”

The Bearcats opened Friday’s scoring marathon on its second possession of the contest, as a long run by sophomore Jordan Hayes set the Bearcats up in the red zone at the Yellowjackets’ 15-yard line.

Then Ruston started pounding Dyson Fields inside on six consecutive plays with the senior running back bursting through to paydirt from two-yards out to put the Bearcats on top 7-0 with 3:32 left in the opening stanza.

Ruston pushed its lead to 14-0 with 24 seconds remaining in the first quarter as Bearcats’ quarterback Jaden Osbone hit Aaron Jackson on a 12-yard scoring strike as RHS looked like it would take control early.

At that point “Old Mo” stayed in the background on the sidelines, waiting for the right time to make his move.

Ruston pushed its lead to 21-0 with 1:42 left in the first as Osborne hit Logan Malone on a 32-yard touchdown pass.

But “Old Mo” had somehow seemingly snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat last week to keep Denham Springs’ postseason dreams alive, and he would tease the Yellowjackets several times about a potential first trip to the quarterfinals since 1985 for DSHS before finally riding off into the sunset with the Bearcats.

First Denham Springs scored on a 12-yard pass with nine seconds remaining in the first half as Da’Shawn McBryde went high and outfought RHS defenders for the ball.

The Yellowjackets then went for the onside kick following Brooks’ scoring reception, and the ball was recovered by Denham Springs at the RHS 30 because of two post-touchdown penalties called against the Bearcats, allowing Denham Springs to kick off from the Bearcats’ 30 yard line.

Denham Springs had pulled off an unlikely victory over Benton last week when instead of running out the clock the Tigers’ quarterback under pressure kneeled on the ball on fourth down a little too early with  .6 seconds left on the clock.

“Old Mo” then helped the Yellow Jackets do a walk-off dance off the field with an incredibly unlikely 29-yard field goal on the game’s final play to cut Ruston’s lead to 21-10 at intermission.

Baugh admitted that end of the first half of Ruston’s win over the Yellow Jackets caused him some concern after watching that happen for Denham Springs on video during the week.

“That definitely worried me,” Baugh said. “I thought we were in complete control of the game early on and then they get those two quick scores out of nowhere to make it a game at halftime. That gave them a lot of momentum going into halftime and coming out in the second half.”

The second half between Ruston and Denham Springs was a see-saw slugfest with the Bearcats landing solid haymakers before “Old Mo” seemingly kept lifting the Yellowjackets off the mat to stay in the contest.

Denham Springs scored at the 6:21 mark of the third quarter to cut Ruston’s lead to 21-17 before Hayes broke loose on a 39-yard scoring scamper to push the Bearcats’ advantage to 28-17 at the 2:29 mark of the third quarter.

But the Yellow Jackets connected on a 65-yard touchdown pass on the next play from scrimmage to hold the Bearcats to a 28-24 lead heading into the fourth.

“Old Mo” was only getting started, this time jumping back over to the Ruston sideline as the Bearcats moved out in front 35-24 with 11:22 renaming on a nine-yard bullet from Osborne to Jackson for their second scoring connection of the night before quickly stopping the Yellow Jackets before Fields pushed the RHS advantage to 42-24 on a 62-yard burst up the middle with 10:44 remaining.

But “Old Mo” was back at it on the ensuing play, sparking Denham Springs’ Ray McKneely for an 82-yard kick return that cut the RHS lead to 42-31 with 10:29 left on the clock.

Junior Bearcat linebacker Jadon Mayfield’s quarterback sack on the Yellowjackets’ next series turned the ball back of the the Bearcats with 7:12 remaining, and Fields’ 17-yard scoring scamper off right tackle on the next play, breaking through three attempted tackles in the process, finally forced the Yellowjackets, and “Old Mo,” to wave the white flag in surrender.

“We’re going to this game for what it’s worth and hopefully learn from it and move on,” Baugh said. “We’ll build on the good things we did and work on the things that we obviously need to correct.”

Fields finished with 121 rushing yards and three scores to lead the Bearcats while Hayes added 14 carries for 117 to power Ruston’s rushing attack.

“Their defensive line looked tough on video heading in and we had a tough time running the ball early on against them,” Baugh said. “It’s one of those things that felt like if we stuck with it, that we could possibly wear them down because they had a couple of guys that played both ways.

“We just stuck with the game plan and before it was over with and I think we just kind of wore them down and were able to break some big runs at times.”

That run game helped Jackson turn in a big night with eight catches for 70 yards and his two scores.

“When we’re able to get the run game going that creates one-on-one matchups with him to be able to get open and he was able to make some plays,” Baugh said about Jackson.

Mayfield led the Bearcats with eight tackles while Nate Johnson added five and Zheric Hill chipped in with four along with an interception to close out the Yellowjackets’ dreams of “Old Mo” giving them a second straight miraculous comeback.

“He got out there and I thought he looked good in pregame,” Baugh said of Hill. “He practiced all week and looked pretty good, better and better each day. Mayfield went out with cramps in the second half, so we needed players like Zheric and Nate Johnson to step up and fill the void, at least on defense.

“We had to move some people around on defense in the second half, and that helped Denham Springs get some good matchups on us. Their coaches did a good job of looking at what we were having to do defensively with Mayfield out, but once we settled in I thought we got better to close out the game.”

And now that that game is closed out, Baugh is already looking ahead toward Zachary.

“We’ll get a few hours of sleep and get back to the school and turn the page on this game and start getting ready for another really good football team,” Baugh said.