By Matt Goisman
McALESTER — It hardly mattered that the East Central Cardinals ran 54 more offensive plays than the McAlester Buffaloes.
With the Cardinals’ defense utterly incapable of stopping the Buffs, their offense could do little more than watch the game get further and further out of hand.
The Buffs scored 11 touchdowns, each time needing three or fewer offensive plays, to beat the Cardinals, 76-28, in Friday's playoff-opener at Hook Eales Stadium in McAlester.
“We knew physically we didn’t match up with this team,” Cardinals coach Bobby Klinck said. “This is the best team I’ve seen on film, and we knew we’d have to play a perfect game and come up with some things, because we couldn’t match them man-for-man.”
Already up 35-21 at halftime, McAlester put the game away with a dominating third quarter in which it outscored East Central 34-0. Jarome Smith began the second half in style, returning a kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown that made it 41-21 after Taeam Kang's only missed extra-point attempt in the game.
After the Buffs' defense forced a three-and-out, Smith scored again on a 45-yard run up the middle to make it 48-21 Buffs with 10:32 left in the third. The Cardinals went three-and-out again, then Rhyln Stephens rushed 21 yards for the Buffs third touchdown in the first four minutes of the quarter.
“Most of our run plays, they leave like a free-hitter type of person,” Smith said. “I just want to give a shout out to my wide receivers, because they physically dominated across the board. I got to the edge and literally only had to worry about one person all night.”
Dalton Wood added a 27-yard touchdown run with 6:32 left to make it 62-21 Buffs. The Buffs punted away their next possession, but after their defense forced the Cardinals' fourth punt in as many third-quarter drives, the Cardinals left receiver Blakely Williams uncovered near the left sideline at the East Central 17-yard line.
Williams quickly darted into the end zone, and Wood floated a soft pass to him in the end zone for a 69-21 lead on what Wood called the easiest touchdown pass he’d ever thrown.
“He deserves it more than anybody else on the team,” Caden Pratt said of Williams. Pratt caught a 70-yard pass from Wood on the first play of the second quarter, benefiting from solid downfield blocking by Williams.
An 82-yard touchdown run by Smith with 10:12 left in the fourth meant the end of the night for McAlester's varsity. The Cardinals ran 30 plays against the Buffs' starting defense in the second half, scoring no points and recording just 33 total yards.
“Couldn’t be more proud of the way we play in the second half,” Buffs coach Bryan Pratt said. “Very, very, very explosive, and if we can continue to do that in the future, we’ll keep playing.
“We came out in the second half with a little more intensity. I thought we tackled a whole lot better and played with a little bit of emotion.”
The Buffs’ second-half defensive success came in part from a halftime adjustment to their blitz. The Buffs had repeatedly gone with a full blitz in the first half, relying on their secondary to play man-to-man coverage and leaving them vulnerable to screen passes.
The Buffs switched in the second half to showing a full blitz at the line of scrimmage, then leaving one defender standing there to watch for a potential screen.
On the Cardinals’ first drive of the third, quarterback Trevon Cherry tried a screen pass on fourth-and-4 from his 45, and linebacker Robby Stephens easily swatted it down.
The Buffs’ defense sacked Cherry eight times, getting sacks from multiple players, including Keaton Slater, Riley Smith, Lane Grant and Payton Haynes. The defense recorded 15 total tackles behind the line scrimmage for negative yardage, plus five more at the line for no gain.
Despite running 85 plays to the Buffs’ 31, the Cardinals averaged just 3.9 yards per play, while the Buffs averaged 16.6.
Jarome Smith rushed for two additional touchdowns in the first half: a 67-yarder on the Buffs' first offensive play of the game, then a 14-yarder with 2:32 left in the half that made it 35-14 Buffs. Wood had a 63-yard touchdown midway through the first quarter, and on the Buffs’ next drive threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Mason Bumphus to make it 21-7 Buffs with 3:37 left in the first.
“I got the rust knocked off from whenever I was out for my ankle,” Wood said. He added that the Cardinals couldn’t tackle the Buffs because of all the time spent in the weight room.
However lopsided this game may have been, the Buffs know they won’t be able to run over their opponent next week, when second-ranked Carl Albert comes to Hook Eales Stadium for the quarter-finals.
“We’re going to need McAlester,” Coach Pratt said of next week’s game. “We’re going to need a packed house. We’re going to need the bleachers full and people standing on the fence.”
With the win, the Buffs improved to 10-1 this season and remain undefeated in Class 5A. The Cardinals finished 4-7.
Contact Matt Goisman at firstname.lastname@example.org.