STORY BY RICHARD CROOME
If the end of the first half was a hard right to the gut, then the final seconds of the game had to feel like a haymaker to the jaw for the Rudder Rangers.
With the score tied at 36, Conroe Caney Creek junior defensive back Randy Cornejo picked up Rudder a fumble near the 5-yard line, avoided one valiant Ranger reach at a tackle then sprinted 95 yards untouched to score the winning touchdown with 3 seconds left.
And thanks to that haymaker, the Panthers won the District 18-5A opener for both teams 43-36 on Friday at Merrill Green Stadium.
Rudder (1-3, 0-1) erased a 12-point deficit and tied the game when quarterback Brady Batten found a wide open Eric Peterson in the corner of the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown pass and Jermaine Mills in the opposite corner for the game-tying 2-point conversion with 4:01 left. The Rangers then held the Panthers (2-2, 1-0) on downs and drove to the Caney Creek 1-yard line with 21 seconds left.
The Rangers called time out and brought in Spencer Choka at quarterback in hopes of bulling their way to victory.
Choka and William Dates, who had just made a sensational 37-yard run on a fourth-and-3, were unable to get a clean look at the end zone on first down, and the ball popped backward to Cornejo.
With the Rangers driving toward the goal line trying to block on the play, none could get up and track down Cornejo once he bolted for the opposite end zone.
“We put in our Rhino package, which had been pretty successful for us in the past, and we tried to bang it in there,” Rudder coach Will Compton said. “They stripped it and made a good play on us, and it didn’t end up the way we wanted. It wasn’t a good play by us, but hats off to Caney Creek for capitalizing on one of our mistakes. If we didn’t get [the touchdown], we were going to kill it and kick a field goal.
Caney Creek also scored in the final 5 seconds of the opening half.
It appeared as if the Rangers would take a 21-14 lead into the break, but Panthers quarterback William Martinez scrambled right to buy time then found Chris Coffer a step behind the Rudder secondary, and Coffer sprinted the final 30 yards of the 64-yard TD catch.
It was the Panthers’ only completion of the game, although it wasn’t Coffer’s only contribution as the senior tailback rushed 33 times for 201 yards and a touchdown.
“The game didn’t come down to one play,” Compton said. “It didn’t come down to a last-second, whatever-yard touchdown there. There were plenty of mistakes we made along the way that set that up. Our kids fought hard, came back form adversity, and I thought we had a little bit of a momentum swing there.”
Rudder appeared to be a bit shell-shocked in the second half. The Ranger defense gave up two touchdown drives of 71 and 40 yards while their offense picking up just one first down.
The Panthers also had an 80-yard interception return by Zack Biles called back late in the third quarter that seemed to add to their momentum despite the fact that the play didn’t coutn.
The Rangers found their stride, though, after the interception return was overturned because of a holding penalty.
Rudder forced a punt, and Mills, who had 10 receptions for 107 yards, finally got his hands on a return and went 34 yards to the Caney Creek 6. A play later, Jamall Collins scored to close the gap to 33-28.
Rudder appeared to have the Panthers stopped on the next possession, but Bryce Carver rushed for 21 yards on a fake punt to set up a 24-yard field goal by Christian Alvarez for a 36-28 Caney Creek lead.
Just as important, the Panthers used up 6 minutes, 43 seconds on the drive, leaving 4:01 on the clock.
Rudder didn’t need much of it, however, marching 70 yards in four plays with Collins battling for 22 yards on the ground just before Batten’s TD pass and two-point conversion pass.
Rudder opened the game with an onside kick which Ranger junior Vincent Sandle recovered. The Rangers didn’t capitalize immediately, but the play set the tone for a wild game throughout.
Courtesy of the B/CS Eagle