By Matt Goisman
McALESTER — To beat the second-ranked Carl Albert Titans, the McAlester Buffaloes figured they’d need to win a close game that required four full quarters from their starters.
McAlester's offense scored more points than any Carl Albert opponent all season, and its defense stopped the Titans on fourth down six times to win Friday’s Class 5A quarter-final, 52-13, at Hook Eales Stadium in McAlester.
McAlester will play either Pryor or Lawton MacArthur, which played Saturday, in the semifinals Friday at a neutral location. It will be McAlester’s third consecutive trip to the semifinals.
“Very proud right now, but we’re in the same position that we’ve been the last two years,” Buffs coach Bryan Pratt said.
“For us to play like we did with this week in the adverse situations that we played in, and then turn around and come away with a big win, is a big deal for us. Now we have to regroup, get ready and get ready for another week of practice.”
The Buffs began to pull away from the Titans early in the second quarter. Dalton Wood converted a third-and-10 with a 20-yard pass to Cade Harkins at the Carl Albert 43-yard line, and after Jarome Smith ran the Buffs to the 27, Wood connected with Mason Bumphus for a 27-yard touchdown pass to make it 21-6 Buffs with 10:58 left in the second.
“They were trying to jump the flats a lot, get in the backfield, so the more pressure they brought, the less people they had to cover us,” Bumphus said.
“Me and Dalton had just been talking, and he said, ‘If the safety steps down and you beat him, just turn it upfield.’”
Wood also found a wide-open Bumphus for a 37-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth. Dealing with a freezing rain all night, Wood seemed more at ease throwing, with five of his nine completions going for 20 or more yards.
“The short-yardage (throws), you have to rush, and you can’t get a good grip,” Wood said. “The longer yards, you can get a better grip, find the laces and get set better.”
Wood added, “This is the biggest game I’ve played in my life, and I’ve been playing since I was 6.”
After the Buffs stopped Titans quarterback Stevie Thompson inches short on fourth-and-2, McAlester took over at midfield. Though the Buffs ended up punting that drive, Bumphus' punt pinned the Titans at the 16, the defense forced a three-and-out and the offense took over at the Carl Albert 45.
A false start cost the Buffs 5 yards, but Wood broke off a 50-yard touchdown run. After another fourth-down stand by the Buffs, Smith rushed 45 yards to the Carl Albert 9, then Wood barreled his way into the end zone to make it 35-6 Buffs with 4:32 left in the half.
Yet another fourth-down stand, this time 2 yards from McAlester’s end zone in the final minute of the second quarter, maintained that score through halftime, then the Titans lost Thompson to an ankle injury on the first play of the third quarter. Though Thompson, who scored the Titans' only touchdown against the Buffs' varsity, eventually returned in the fourth, a scoreless third quarter left the Titans too little time to mount a comeback.
“He’s our offense,” Carl Albert coach Gary Rose said of Thompson. “We have to have an offensive line and receivers and backs, but he makes that whole thing go.”
Allen Woodmore also intercepted Thompson's second pass after returning to the field, and one play later Rhyln Stephens rushed 41 yards up the middle for a touchdown that made it 49-6 Buffs.
Smith rushed for McAlester's first two touchdowns. A 42-yard pass to Bumphus set up Smith's 16-yard run, then Carl Albert fumbled the ensuing kickoff and gave McAlester the ball at the Carl Albert 39.
Two passes to Caden Pratt moved McAlester to the 21, then Smith covered the rest in two plays, diving into the end zone to make it 14-0 Buffs with 6:03 left in the first. Smith rushed for 182 yards and looked especially dangerous running sweeps around the defensive line.
“They’ve probably watched film and seen how many times I’ve just banged it up inside and would be able to get it vertical upfield,” Smith said.
“I’ve been keeping track of how much I’ve been doing it and just tried to work the edge a little bit more tonight because I knew they were going to be playing the cutback.”
Taeam Kang added a 42-yard field goal midway through the fourth to make it 52-6 with 6:50 left in the game, at which point the Buffs subbed in their junior varsity.
Despite facing a larger Carl Albert team, the Buffs’ defense still played a more physical style of football, winning battles at the line of scrimmage and allowing very few long-yardage plays. This led to seven tackles behind the line by the Buffs, two sacks and fourth-down stops on the Titans’ first two drives of the game.
“We really, really felt like we had one of the best weeks of practices that we’ve had in quite some time,” Coach Pratt said.
“I thought our coaching staff did a phenomenal job of putting a game-plan together that was easier for the kids to understand.”
With the win, McAlester improved to 11-1. Carl Albert finished 9-3.
Contact Matt Goisman at firstname.lastname@example.org.