The scenario turned out about as well as could be for the Houston High School football team Friday night in Tiger Stadium, as the host squad took care of business on senior night and beat Mountain Grove, 28-14.
The South Central Association contest started with a bang, as both teams scored touchdowns within less than two minutes of the opening kickoff.
Houston struck first, as senior running back Tristan Leier took a handoff, found open space, and scampered 53 yards into the end zone on the Tigers’ second play from scrimmage. After a failed 2-point conversion, Houston was up 6-0 with 11:30 still remaining in the first quarter.
But the visiting Panthers answered in a hurry, and held their only lead of the football game at 7-6 after senior quarterback Rhett Wakefield ran for a 16-yard touchdown at the 10:16 mark of the quarter and sophomore Isaiah Schott added a point-after kick.
Late in the period, the Tigers defense made the Panthers go 3-and-out deep in their own territory, and after a short punt, Houston had the ball at the Mountain Grove 37-yard line.
The Tigers capitalized on the opportunity, moving the ball on several runs by senior Chance Mitchell. Then with only 47 seconds left in the quarter and the ball at the 9-yard line, senior quarterback Dakota Burchett hit Leier with a short pass and Leier ran it into the end zone for a score. After Mitchell ran for a 2-point conversion, Houston held a 14-7 advantage and never trailed again.
Late in the second quarter, the Tigers’ offense rolled out a couple of trick plays, one of which turned out to be a game-changer and was successful on multiple occasions during the contest. With about 3 minutes left in the half, sophomore tight end Korbyn Tune ran for a 25-yard gain on a reverse play to the Mountain Grove 40-yard line. After an offside call on the Panthers, Burchett connected with Mitchell on a flea flicker pass play that advanced the ball to the 15. Mitchell ended up finishing the drive with a 1-yard TD run and tacked on a 2-point conversion run to give Houston a 22-7 lead with 2:39 to go before the break.
The two teams traded jabs for much of the third quarter, but as the clock ran down in the period, Wakefield turned a broken pass play into a 36-yard run to the Tigers’ 11-yard line. Then with 1:01 showing, freshman running back Hollen Glenn ran for a 2-yard touchdown, and after Schott made good on another extra-point kick, Houston’s lead was cut to 22-14.
The Tigers then stepped up on both sides of the ball in the final period to secure the victory.
Midway through the quarter, Tune gained 20 yards on another reverse to move the ball to the Panthers’ 25-yard line. After a pass interference call put Houston at the 10, Tune scored on yet another reverse with 6:52 left in the game and the Tigers were ahead 28-14 following a failed 2-point run.
With 3:40 to go, senior lineman Chris Cichon sacked Mountain Grove freshman quarterback Tyson Elliot for 12-yard loss, and the huge play backed the Panthers up to their own 43-yard line. They never recovered and turned the ball over on downs a short time later.
Houston’s offense got the final say in the game, with Burchett twice taking a knee before the final horn sounded.
“I thought we played pretty well in all aspects of the game – offense, defense and special teams,” said HHS head coach Eric Sloan. “We played well as a team and didn't have any selfish acts. Whatever was best for the team was exactly what they boys were willing to do. We had several young guys step up and play a lot of minutes at a high level.”
The Tigers gained a season-high 311 yards on the ground in the game.
“We have had some skill guys who have moved to the line who are team players,” Sloan said. “Their attitudes have been great during the transition and they’ve been willing to do whatever it takes to help the team be successful.
“It starts up front and I felt like we owned the line of scrimmage all night. We stayed on blocks and played pretty disciplined football.”
Mitchell ran for a season-high 159 yards on 28 carries.
“Chance is the most unselfish player I've ever coached,” Sloan said. “Whatever is best for the team is what he is willing to do. We had to move him during the game to outside linebacker to stop the quarterback running option and he didn't even blink.
“He continues to do good things for us. He runs hard and gets a lot of tough yards.”
Wakefield’s efforts orchestrating the option got Sloan’s attention in a hurry, but Cichon brought him down for a loss when the chips were down.
“We had to make some adjustments with personnel due to us not stopping him,” Sloan said. “Once we changed some things around it seemed to work. Cichon draws a lot of attention from opposing teams but plays with a motor, and he came up big on the final defensive stand.”
Leier also had a season-high 75 yards rushing on 9 tries.
Burchett completed 5-of-10 passes for 67 yards, with each completion going to a different receiver.
Tune had his best game of the season. He ran for 46 yards on 3 carries, caught a pass for a 22-yard gain, and at linebacker led Houston’s defense with 7 solo tackles and 5 assists.
“He broke out and played very well on both sides of the ball,” Sloan said.
The Tigers’ struggles with injuries this year have been well documented. For the first time in the season, the same players started for Houston’s offensive line for the second week in a row.
“We started to gel with two consecutive weeks of work together,” Sloan said. “Hopefully we can continue to build off of that.”
The win was important to the Tigers (3-5, 1-5 SCA), as it was their first of the season in conference competition and bolstered their chances of being assigned to a manageable game in the first round of the district tournament, set for Nov. 1.
Houston travels Friday to Mountain View to take on Liberty in the final regular season contest of the 2019 season.
“Liberty is a tough place to play,” Sloan said. “They are rolling right now and scoring a lot of points on teams. We have to play very well and keep the ball away from them.”