STORY BY LARRY BOWEN
HUNTSVILLE — A&M Consolidated made a bunch of mistakes against Huntsville, but giving the football to Tyri Merchant wasn’t among them, and neither was defending the hand grenade pass.
Junior running back Merchant rushed for a career-high 276 yards and three touchdowns as the Tigers rode his flashing feet and a last-second interception by senior cornerback Jonquil Gin to a 37-36 victory over the Hornets at Bowers Stadium on Friday night.
Consol, which began the season ranked fourth in the state but lost all three nondistrict games, earned its first victory in the District 18-5A opener for both teams. Huntsville suffered its first loss, falling to 3-1 overall.
Dropped passes, missed tackles and 90 yards in penalties hurt the Tigers, but not as badly as Merchant’s relentless running and Gin’s interception stung the Hornets.
“We made some mistakes we don’t usually make, but fighting through that and overcoming adversity, I think that says volumes about our football team,” Consol coach David Raffield said. “I’m proud. We finished the game. You could argue that against Elkins (a double-overtime loss) we finished the game, but I don’t think we did that in those first two games.”
Merchant’s brilliant performance got the Tigers close to the finish line, but his fumble in the closing minutes gave Huntsville a chance to triumph at the end. Huntsville got the ball at its 37-yard line and moved to a first down at the Consol 28 with 19 seconds remaining. Saving their last timeout, the Hornets hurried to the line and ran a play, with quarterback Ricko Bennett lofting a deep pass to the corner as his receiver cut toward the middle. Gin cradled the interception at the 1 with 6 seconds left.
“It felt great,” Gin said. “He just threw it up, and I took it. I did what the coaches told me, that if the ball goes up, it’s mine.”
Raffield calls plays like that in which the quarterback lobs the ball high — a hand grenade pass. Those had injured Consol in losses against Copperas Cove and Richmond Foster. This time, it blew up on the Hornets.
“We probably had one more [play], but I knew what [Bennett] was trying to do,” Huntsville coach Rodney Southern said. “He was trying to take a shot, because we would’ve had one more shot, then call timeout. If we were going to kick a field goal, I wanted to do it with 2 seconds left. Unfortunately, it didn’t get to that point.”
A fantastic finish wouldn’t have been necessary without Merchant’s big night. He provided a huge boost with 25 carries that helped knock some dents out of Consol’s uneven offensive performance.
“I really don’t know how it happened,” Merchant said. “We came in hyped to start district.”
In Consol’s previous game against Elkins, Merchant was limited to 2 yards on eight carries.
“We needed him,” Raffield said. “He has a lot of pride, and he didn’t run real well against Elkins. He really rose up. He’s worked hard for two weeks to run like he ran tonight.”
Merchant’s last touchdown put the Tigers ahead to stay after Huntsville took a 36-30 lead late in the third quarter.
A roughing the passer penalty against the Hornets breathed life into Consol’s go-ahead drive. Merchant slashed over right tackle and broke two tackles on a 30-yard touchdown run. Daniel Zivney kicked the extra point that put Consol ahead 37-36.
Huntsville got into Consol territory twice in the fourth quarter. Along with the last push, the Hornets reached the 21 midway through the period before Tigers defensive back T.J. Raniszeski tackled Alec Tatum for a 9-yard loss that led to a missed 47-yard field goal.
The Tigers’ first half was a wild ride, careening along through several dips caused by a variety of mistakes, then rising thanks to a closing burst of big plays.
Consol scored on the opening possession with Merchant supplying a highlight-worthy play on a 46-yard touchdown run. Mechant took an option pitch then hurdled over a defender at the 30-yard line.
Dropped passes and penalties derailed Consol’s next two drives, allowing the Hornets to pull even with an 85-yard touchdown march.
The next miscue was more costly, as Mason Hickson threw an interception deep in Huntsville territory. The Hornets turned that into the go-ahead touchdown, which Consol quickly answered with a 32-yard scoring burst by Merchant. However, Zivney missed the extra point and the Tigers trailed 14-13.
Huntsville pushed its lead to 21-13 with an impressive 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. The Hornets seemed to have plenty of momentum, but then Consol exploited a leaky Huntsville pass defense.
Zivney atoned for a couple of dropped passes and the missed kick by catching a 71-yard touchdown pass from Hickson, stepping through an attempted tackle then cutting inside the safety to score.
After forcing a punt, the Tigers put together a quick 71-yard drive. Hickson hit David Gan for 37 yards, but a chop-block penalty left Consol facing second-and-28 when Derrick Dick slipped behind the secondary for a stunning 51-yard touchdown catch that gave Consol a 27-21 halftime lead.
Story courtesy of the B/CS Eagle