By MIKE MONTFORT —
TYLER — Sophomore Josh Cleveland ran for three second-half touchdowns while Navarro’s defense forced five fumbles and blocked two punts as the third-seeded Bulldogs upset Tyler 29-10 in a Southwest Junior College Football Conference Semifinal Playoff.
The victory catapulted Navarro (7-3) into its eighth SWJCFC Championship Football game in the last nine seasons and enabled first-year coach Cody Crill’s Bulldogs to host the title game at Tiger Stadium on Saturday.
NC welcomes fourth-seeded Kilgore (6-4) for a 2 pm Saturday matchup for not only the SWJCFC title, but the right to be the host team for the CHAMPS Heart of Texas Bowl at Copperas Cove, Tx., on December 5.
Next Saturday’s championship game will be a matchup of lower-seeded teams whose outstanding defensive play simply pulled the plug on the league’s point-a-rama, video-game offenses for one weekend.
Kilgore won its second straight overtime game last Saturday by shocking Trinity Valley 24-21 at Bruce Field in Athens with five interceptions of quarterback Rayjohn Austin-Ramsey — three of which were returned for touchdowns, and a fourth snagged in the end zone that ended the ballgame.
On Sunday, it was Navarro’s defense that shined on the rainiest of afternoons at Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium against an injury-riddled TJC squad that had been ranked nationally in rushing touchdowns (5th with 29), in rushing yardage (6th with 251.7 per game), in total offense (7th with 505.9 yards per game), and in scoring (7th with 47.8 per game).
Coordinator Scott Joseph’s defense limited TJC to 262 yards offense, including 111 yards rushing on 38 attempts. The Bulldogs recovered five of seven Tyler fumbles, including three consecutively to end second-half drives. NC forced Luis Duran to punt eight times and blocked two of them. While sending TJC spiraling to its second straight defeat, the Bulldogs’ defense generally made Apache life more miserable than the miserable conditions in which they had to play.
TJC struggled offensively to find any rhythm with starting quarterback Sederian Copeland, who did not return to the field for the second half of a 10-10 game. Coach Danny Palmer’s Apaches also were hampered by other backfield injuries and entered the game shorthanded without sophomore leading receiver Ryan Parker.
Cleveland rushed 27 times for 167 yards and scored touchdowns on runs of 77, 1, and 11 yards during the second half and ignited Navarro’s surge from a 10-10 halftime deadlock.
He gave Navarro a lead it never relinquished on the first offensive play from scrimmage in the second half when he exploded with sprinter speed 77 yards off right guard untouched for a score.
At 7:43 of the third period, Cleveland plunged into the end zone from one yard out on a third-down call. The 26-yard drive was set up by a blocked punt recovery, and Navarro overcame an unsportsmanlike penalty to cash in for the six-pointer.
Cleveland also finalized matters with 8:28 left in the game with an 11-yard push across the goalline. Leading 23-10, NC chiseled out a workmanlike 10-play, 51-yard scoring drive that consumed 5:22 and employed nine rushing plays.
For most of the first half in the steady rain, the game hardly resembled anything close to the last two meetings between the clubs, when a combined 124 points and 122 points were scored.
For 27 minutes, it was a 3-3 game. It was Patrick O’Brien’s 24-yard field goal at 8:23 of the first quarter against Duran’s 34-yarder at 6:55 of the second.
Inside the final three minutes of the half, the teams traded breakthrough scores.
Tyler assumed a 10-3 edge at 2:56 when sophomore linebacker Somari Wright intercepted Devlin Isadore’s pass and returned it 26 yards. It was Wright’s second interception return for touchdown this season.
On the next possession with 2:28 left, Isadore hooked up with Del’Michael High on a 73-yard pass play as a TJC defender slipped in coverage.
High led Navarro receivers with five catches for 134 yards as Isadore’s top target during an 11-for-31, 225-yard passing performance in the slick conditions.
Pearland freshman Connor Heath and sophomore Tevin Muse took turns at quarterback during the second half for TJC, but could not generate any consistency against NC’s defense.
Navarro 29, Tyler 10
Navarro 3 7 13 6 — 29
Tyler 0 10 0 0 — 10
N — Patrick O’Brien 24 FG, 8:23
T — Luis Duran 34 FG, 6:55
T — Somari Wright 26 interception return (Duran kick), 2:56
N — Del’Michael High 73 pass from Devlin Isadore (O’Brien kick), 2:28
N — Josh Cleveland 77 run (O’Brien kick), 14:39
N — Cleveland 1 run (kick failed), 7:43
N — Cleveland 11 run (pass failed), 8:28
YARDSTICK N T
First Downs 16 17
Rushes-Yards 43-173 38-150
Passing 11-31-1 19-49-0
Passing Yards 225 151
Punting 8-42 8-31
Fumbles 0-0 7-5
Penalties 10-115 9-75
RUSHING — N: Cleveland 27-167, Isadore 4-(-14), Marcus Anderson 2-12, Maurice Gordon 8-19, Mori Evans 1-1, Team 1-(-12). T: Hayden Cole 6-22, Kenneth Burks 10-72, Kee Kee Johnson 2-3, Sederian Copeland 7-27, Leroy Dobbins 6-16, Team 1-(-29)
PASSING — N: Isadore 11-31-1-225. T: Copeland 8-24-0-79, Connor Heath 10-22-0-56, Tevin Muse 1-3-0-16.
RECEIVING — N: High 5-134, Calvin Jones 3-35, Terrance Taylor 1-11, Dominique Harris 2-45; T: Savion Rollison 7-26, Cole 2-20, Nathan Crouch 5-34, C.J. Thomas 2-23, Burks 1-16, John Murray 2-17
Punt Returns — N: Devin Smith 1-0; T: Rollison 2-22, Edrick Gonzalez 1-11.
Kick Returns — N: Smith 2-25; T: Rollison 1-40, Cobe Carraway 2-46.