By Malcolm Butler
Survive and advance.
That’s what the top-seeded Ruston Bearcats did at James Field at Hoss Garrett Stadium tonight.
Semaj Jones’ interception on the final play of the game sealed Ruston’s 20-18 win over 16-seed Westgate, sending the Bearcats into a match-up next week with 9-seed Walker. Walker defeated Northshore 28-2 tonight to advance to next week’s game against Ruston.
Bearcat fans can breathe a sigh of relief.
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t easy. And it sure wasn’t perfect.
But it was the 11th win of the year for Ruston and keeps the Bearcats hopes of returning to the Superdome alive for another week.
“That’s what I told the kids,” said head coach Jerrod Baugh. “It wasn’t pretty in some areas. I won’t blame it on the bye week. We need to do a better job in all three phases. We have some corrections we have to make. We did enough to win the ball game and this time of the year that’s all that counts.”
Ruston built a 20-3 lead early in the third quarter on Jordan Hayes’ 3-yard TD run with 9:05 to play in the stanza, and then they held on for dear life.
Two empty possessions inside the 10-yard line by Ruston in the first half kept the Tigers within striking distance.
Josh Brantley’s 43-yard TD run on the first snap of the game for the Bearcats gave Ruston a 7-3 lead. Brantley rushed for 96 yards on 15 carries in the contest while completing 4-of-9 for 73 yards through the air.
“Really gutsy performance by Josh,” said Baugh. “I was really pleased with him and what he has done. He put our team on his back and made some big plays. The (TD) run was just one of many on the night.”
Brantley found tight end Zhy Scott from 39-yards out for a score in the second quarter and the Bearcats led 14-3 at the break.
However, it could have been more.
On its second possession of the night, Ruston had first and goal from the six yard line already leading 7-3. On third and goal from the four, Brantley hit Dylone Brooks in the hands with what would have been a TD but Brooks wasn’t able to bring it in. On fourth and goal, Hayes was stuffed and Ruston was turned away empty handed.
Then leading 14-3 in the final minutes of the first half, Hayes broke off a 67-yard run and Ruston moved the ball inside the Westgate 10. However, on fourth down and 1, Brooks was stuffed and the Bearcats came away without points.
“We felt comfortable with the play calls we had,” said Baugh about those fourth down calls. “If we didn’t get it they were going to have to make long drives. I felt good about taking the shots to get seven instead of getting three points. One of the gambles you take. People will question it when it doesn’t go well. And when it does I’m the smartest guy in the stadium.”
Westgate rallied with a 26-yard TD pass that cut the score to 20-10 in the third quarter. Early in the fourth quarter with Ruston set to punt, the snap sailed over the head of Will Fendley and through the endzone for a safety, cutting the lead to 20-12.
Following the free kick, Westgate drove it down the field and scored on a 1-yard run. The Tigers lined up for the two point conversion and were successful; however, an illegal procedure penalty negated it. On the second attempt, the Ruston defense got the stop and keep the 20-18 lead.
The Bearcats offense used almost six minutes on the final drive the 12 run plays before turning it over on downs on the Westgate 12 with just 38 seconds remaining. Following two completions that moved the football to the 35-yard line, Jones intercepted the pass on the final play of the game.
The Bearcats defense was stellar for most of the night against 5-star quarterback Jaboree Antoine, who returned after missing the last few weeks with an injury. Antoine was 8-of-10 for 131 yards and one score while rushing 10 times for 24 yards.
“I knew Westgate would come ready to play,” said Baugh. “Getting their quarterback back was a shot in the arm. They were excited. They are used to being in this position in the playoffs. They won a state championship a few years ago. At the end of day we beat a good football team.”
The Bearcats held Westgate to just 101 yards on the ground on 35 carries. Jadon Mayfield recorded 10 tackles for Ruston while Zheric Hill and Nate Johnson each added seven.
Hayes added 96 yards on 15 carries.