Friday: Thayer (2-2) at Houston (1-3)
Watch online: www.houstonherald.com/live
Victory No. 1 was well worth the wait.
After sitting through two lightning delays and starting the game with their county rivals nearly two hours late, the Houston Tigers are no longer winless in 2016. Behind a fast start and four touchdown runs by senior Chance Hunter, HHS downed Cabool 34-14 Friday night at Tiger Stadium.
It wasn’t a normal night of football. A storm passing through the region postponed the kickoff until 8:45 p.m. It was nearly 11:30 when the game ended. And a brief, but heavy rain made handling the ball challenging as there were nine combined lost fumbles.
But it was the Tigers who ultimately handled the circumstances the best to beat their Texas County counterparts for the second straight year and fourth time in five seasons.
“You can see start to see some of our younger kids starting to play with some confidence,” Houston coach Eric Sloan said. “I don’t think we’re getting the deer in the headlights look like we were. I think we’re maturing over time, as we should.”
The night began normally with both teams warming up on the field. But when they returned to their respective locker rooms just before the national anthem around 6:45 p.m., officials called for a 30-minute delay as lightning lit up the sky to the west. The weather improved by 8 p.m. and the teams warmed up again, sent their captains to the middle of the field and participated in the coin toss. But before the ball was kicked off, a big lightning strike led to another 30-minute delay.
Sloan said he and the coaching staff did their best to keep the players focused through the uncertainty and multiple delays.
“You never can tell if we’re locked in and ready to go or too loose. When we went in (the first time), it seemed like we were a little squirrelly and didn’t know how to handle it,” Sloan said. “There was a lot of down time sitting around. You don’t really want them on their cell phones, but everybody is wanting to know what the weather is going to do.”
Sloan said he told his team when the game finally did begin, it was important to get off to a strong start.
The Tigers did.
Senior Connor Clifton scooped up a fumble on the fourth play of the game and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown. Just four plays later, Houston recovered another fumble and was in the end zone again as Hunter plowed in from two yards away.
In 4 minutes, 18 seconds, the Tigers (1-3, 1-1 South Central Association) had a 14-0 lead.
“It was a little difficult to keep everyone focused,” Sloan said. “With the weather, and who knows what will happen, we kept telling them we’ve got to start fast and hope if the weather hits, we’ve got a comfortable lead at that point.”
Hunter led the way offensively with 19 carries for 158 yards and touchdown runs of 2, 44, 50 and 2 yards. Sophomore quarterback Paydon Dixon had a career-best 81 yards rushing and another 25 through the air.
The Tigers’ defense recovered six of Cabool’s nine fumbles.
“Paydon was saying the ball was gummy and slimy, and (center) Josh (Hurst) said it was muddy and hard to hang onto,” Sloan said. “It’s one of those deals that they’re playing with the same ball we are. You try to hang onto it and play the best fundamental football that you can.”
Cabool (0-4, 0-2 SCA) got its first points in the final seconds of the first quarter as three plays after the Bulldogs’ defense forced an interception, quarterback Logan Miller found Bailey Williams for an 11-yard score.
Hunter had a 44-yard touchdown run down the right sideline midway through the second quarter to put Houston in front 20-7. Dixon added a two-point conversion run when he fought his way into the end zone despite a facemask penalty that HHS declined.
The Tigers’ advantage swelled to 28-7 early in the third quarter when Hunter broke loose from a tackle attempt at the line of scrimmage and bolted 50 yards for a score.
Clifton had a 36-yard run on third-and-24 late in the fourth quarter to set up Hunter’s final touchdown run.
“Give credit to the offensive line,” Sloan said. “They continue to get better. We told them before the game that in these conditions, it would be won or lost up front. Our kids took pride in that.”
Sloan improved to 2-0 against his alma mater.
“That blue doesn’t have the same look that it had all those years,” Sloan joked. “It’s not as good looking as it used to be.”