STORY BY: JORDAN MESEROLE
BRYAN — It came down to one play as time expired, and the Rudder Ranger defense did what it had done all night against the Willis Wildkats: held strong.
Despite allowing 20 unanswered points in the second half, the Rangers were able to hold on just enough against the Wildkats to secure a 26-20 victory Friday night at Merrill Green Stadium.
After missing the second half of last week’s game against Brenham due to an injury and being held to 22 yards, Rudder senior running back Tre Guyton returned to form, racking up 218 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the victory.
More importantly for Rudder (3-6, 3-4 District 18-4A), the win helped keep them narrowly in the playoff hunt, while Willis (2-6, 2-4) fell out of any hopes of contention in the race.
Rudder showed early on it was fired up for senior night at home, forcing a fumble on the opening kickoff and recovering the ball at the Willis 10-yard line. Two plays later, Guyton scrambled in from five yards out to give the Rangers an early 6-0 lead.
After getting the ball back on a punt, Rudder quickly upped the lead to 12 on a 22-yard rushing touchdown by Guyton again only three minutes into the game. The Ranger defense held strong, forcing another punt by the Wildkats, and the offense once again capitalized as Guyton dashed in from 14-yards out with 5:39 left in the first quarter to push the lead to 20-0. Guyton had 124 rushing yards in the first quarter alone.
Even stronger than Guyton was the Rudder defense, which forced Willis to punt four times, two turnover-on-downs, and recovered a fumble in the first half. The Ranger defense held Willis to just 28 total yards of offense in the first half.
But after halftime, the tides changed very quickly for both teams.
After recovering a fumble by Rudder senior quarterback Llelwyn Boswell to start the fourth quarter, Willis quickly capitalized, marching 80 yards down the field and getting on the scoreboard at 9:23 in the third quarter on a five yard touchdown run by junior wide receiver Chris Platt.
The Wildkats would turn up the heat even more in the fourth quarter, scoring on back-to-back drives including on a 44 yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Lofton Bean to sophomore running back John Lewis and a 25 yard touchdown pass from Bean to Lewis once again, closing Rudder’s lead to only 26-20. Bean finished the night with 129 passing yards and two touchdowns, while Lewis racked up 69 receiving yards and an additional 81 rushing yards.
With less than five minutes left in the game, the Rudder defense would wake back up however, and all but sealed its victory when Ranger junior defensive back Isaiah Johnson intercepted a Bean pass attempt with 1:25 in the fourth quarter.
The Wildkats would get two more chances at the end zone with 0:34 left in the game after the Rudder offense failed to control the clock and run out time, but strong pressure from the Rudder secondary shutdown any last minute hail-mary attempts.
Rudder travels to Montgomery next Friday for its final game of the regular season, and must win in order to stay in the playoff hunt. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30.