They kept it close through much of the first half, but the Houston High School Football Tigers fell 40-14 in a South Central Association conference game Friday night at Louis Bozman Field in Thayer.
The two teams exchanged possessions for most of the first quarter, as the defenses closed holes, delivered hard hits and finished tackles.
The host Bobcats got on the board first and led 7-0 with 11 seconds left in the period after when senior running back Jackson Willison finished a 60-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run and senior kicker Zach Jones booted an extra point.
The Tigers responded quickly and tied the score early in the second quarter.
After junior Dakota James returned the ensuing kickoff 30 yards to midfield, sophomore quarterback Wyatt Hughes connected with junior Zac Williams for a 15-yard passing gain. On the next play, senior running back Bailey Hurst took the ball the distance for a touchdown, breaking several tackles on his way to the right side of the end zone.
Sophomore kicker John Kimrey made the point-after and Houston had drawn even.
But Thayer went on to build a 26-7 lead as the second quarter wore on.
The Bobcats unveiled an effective air assault that they would use frequently for the rest of the game, and went ahead 14-7 on a 16-yard pass from senior quarterback Landry Pitts to sophomore wide receiver Eric Simer with 8:42 to go in the half, followed by another extra point.
Thayer extended the advantage to 20-7 with a short scoring run by Pitts with 1:15 remaining and went up 26-7 when senior defensive back Lane Grimes hauled in an interception and returned it 87 yards for a score with less than 3 seconds showing on the clock.
Amazingly, Houston scored again before halftime when Hurst returned the kickoff 76 yards for a touchdown (catching the ball in the middle of the field and then sprinting down the right sideline with a crowd of players trailing) and Kimrey made good on another extra point to cut the deficit to 26-14.
But in the second half, Thayer added 14 points while the Tigers went scoreless.
The Bobcats got a TD late in the third quarter when Willison capped off another lengthy drive with a short run and then got another early in the fourth period on a 57-yard pass from Pitts to Grimes.
Thayer (4-1, 3-0 SCA) benefited in the contest from a roster including 12 active seniors, while the Tigers had only three. As HHS head coach Eric Sloan was forced to juggle players due to injury and depth, senior running back Zach Fuwell and freshman fullback Maleki Morgan each played dozens of downs as linemen. Neither had played there before in their careers.
Sloan had several other freshmen and sophomores playing key roles, some who were also out of their normal positions.
“We had to put kids in weird positions,” Sloan said. “With the adjustments we had to make with personnel, and considering how young we are, I thought we played really well for most of the game. But it’s kind of rough, because you’re robbing one position to fix another, but that’s were we are right now and you try to make the least amount of moves possible to keep from hurting yourself.
“It seems like each day there’s a new surprise and you’re without this guy or that guy. It’s like a game of chess.”
Houston’s current roster includes just three active seniors and only six juniors. Conversely, there are 23 freshmen and 12 sophomores.
“It should be fun to coach this team in a year or two,” Sloan said. “If a guy goes down, you just plug in another upperclassman and move on.”
The Tigers held the Bobcats to only 84 yards rushing – far fewer than their normal output.
“Nobody has shut them down,” Sloan said. “I thought our kids did a good job of buying in and stopping the run, but I think we got so consumed with it that our eyes got off of our reads and they had some success throwing the ball.”
The Tigers were also without defensive coordinator Jake Brookshire because of health issues.
“I didn’t like it,” Sloan said. “He’s a presence the kids are used to being around and it’s weird not having him there.”
This week, Houston (2-3, 1-2 SCA) hosts Ava on Homecoming Night. The undefeated Bears (5-0, 3-0 SCA) are ranked fourth in the latest Class 2 poll and will bring a high-powered flexbone option offense to Tiger Stadium.
“It’s assignment football,” Sloan said, “and you better do your job and read your keys. If our eyes get lazy, we’re going to be in trouble.”