By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Class 4A, No. 8 Hokes Bluff couldn’t keep pace with No. 7 Saks as the Wildcats left Hokes Bluff Stadium with a 35-19 win last Friday (Oct. 27).
Saks (9-0, 7-0) clinched the Class 4A, Region 5 championship with the win and will host Westminster Christian in the first round of the state playoffs on Nov 10. Hokes Bluff (7-2, 5-2) dropped to the third seed and will travel to Madison Academy in a rematch of last year’s state semifinal matchup.
After the Hokes Bluff offense stalled on its opening drive the Wildcat offense took over and quickly moved the ball down the field. Running back JaDarris Griffin capped off an 11-play drive with a 14-yard touchdown run to give Saks an early 7-0 lead with 5:23 remaining in the opening quarter.
The Eagles went three-and-out again on their second drive, and Saks quarterback Laderrick Bell broke loose on the first play of the Wildcats’ ensuing possession for a 62-yard touchdown run to give his team a 14-0 lead.
On Hokes Bluff’s third series of the evening, running back Darrian Meads found a seam on the second play for a 34-yard gain. Two plays later, quarterback Landon Johnson found receiver Carson Eubanks on a fade route for a 19-yard score to cut the deficit to 14-7 with 1:27 remaining in the first quarter.
Saks wasted no time finding the end zone on the following drive.
The Eagles struggled to defend the read option all night, and Bell faked a handoff to the running back and kept the ball for a 73-yard touchdown on the third play of the possession. The Wildcats led 21-7 with 11:47 left until halftime.
After the teams exchanged punts, the Eagles started their fifth drive of the night on their own 32-yard line. Johnson connected with tight end Peyton Moore on a 14-yard gain, and the passing attack opened up the running game for Meads. On the fifth play of the drive, Meads burst through the hole and outran the Wildcat defenders for a 50-yard score to close the gap to 21-14 with 2:13 remaining in the second quarter.
While the Eagle defense focused on stopping the Saks rushing attack, the Wildcats decided to go to the air on their next drive. Bell found receiver Rodolfo Torres for a 50-yard touchdown, and the Wildcats took a 28-14 lead into the locker room.
The Wildcats started the second half of the ball and played a successful game of keep-away from the Hokes Bluff offense. Saks marched down the field on a methodical six-minute, 14-play drive that resulted in a two-yard touchdown run from Bell to extend the lead to 35-14.
Hokes Bluff’s only drive of the fourth quarter ended when a mishandled snap on fourth-and-1 resulted in a turnover on downs. The Wildcats took over on their own 42, and their ground game led them down the field on another 14-play drive. The Eagles stopped Saks on fourth-and-goal, but the Wildcats chewed over seven minutes of the clock on the drive.
The Eagles then started on their own 1-yard line, and Johnson found receiver Braydon Hill on a post pattern for a 40-yard gain. Johnson connected with Hill, Eubanks and fullback Levi Taliaferro on passes to keep to drive alive, and Meads scored his second touchdown of the night on a one-yard run to cut the gap to 35-19 with 5:11 left in the game.
Saks recovered the ensuing onsides kick, however, and the visitors didn’t leave the Eagles enough time to score again down the stretch.
Hokes Bluff coach Mike Robertson said the Wildcats were the better team on the night and deserved credit for their performance, as they outgained the Eagles 466-309.
“They’re pretty physical up front, and that obviously showed tonight,” Robertson said. “I thought we hung in there. [Saks] controlled the ball tonight. We only had the ball three times in the second half. We had the three-and-out and that’s all we had in the third quarter. And then we had the 99-yard drive, which we ate clock up, too.
“So, there weren’t many possessions. We gave them too many possessions in the first half, but they’re talented. (Bell) is a good player. He’s run up and down the field on everybody.”
Robertson he believes his team has improved despite the loss to Saks, though he said that the Eagles have some weaknesses that need to be corrected moving forward.
“I think we’ve gotten a little better,” he said. “Last year (Saks) kind of did the same thing to us. We’ve got some weaknesses that we’ve got to keep working on. I thought we battled until the end. I give our kids credit. We didn’t quit. They were the better team tonight. I give them credit.”
Meads led the Eagles on the ground with 19 carries for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson was 12-25 for 159 yards and a touchdown, while Eubanks caught four passes for 57 yards a score.
Hill had two catches for 51 yards and Moore caught three passes for 41 yards. Safety Ashton Gulledge led the Eagles defensively with 12 tackles and a fumble recovery.
Bell led all players with 23 carries for 205 yards and three touchdowns. He also threw for 108 yards and a score. Running back Jonathon Cobb carried the ball 26 times for 115 yards.
Hokes Bluff travels to Westbrook Christian this Friday (Nov. 3) in a non-region game to finish out the regular season.
“We’ve been the third seed more than once in the playoffs, and it’s worked out,” Robertson said. “But we’re going to have to make some improvements. We got whipped up front tonight both sides of the ball. Hopefully we’ll come out of this healthy and hopefully we’ll be able to bounce back.”