By Matt Goisman
Often dropping five defenders into the secondary, the Claremore Zebras challenged the McAlester Buffaloes to win the game on the ground.
So that’s exactly what the Buffs did.
McAlester running back Jarome Smith rushed for three touchdowns and quarterback Dalton Wood rushed for two more, powering the Buffaloes to a 59-35 win against the Claremore Zebras on Friday at Hook Eales Stadium in McAlester.
“If they’re going to widen out to cover our bubble (passes) and our hitches and things like that, than we have to be able to run the football,” Buffs coach Bryan Pratt said. “Which goes back to the way we run our offense: If you stop one thing, you can’t stop the other.”
The Buffs out-scored the Zebras 35-7 in the second and third quarters, turning a one-possession deficit into a 42-21 lead the Zebras couldn't overcome. The comeback began with a 20-yard touchdown run from Smith, then the Buffs forced a turnover when Claremore quarterback Brinley Brown's pass bounced off receiver Hunter Garroutte and into the air.
Buffs safety Caden Pratt grabbed the ball and returned it 67 yards for the interception-touchdown, giving the Buffs a 21-14 lead.
“I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time, caught it and took off,” Caden Pratt said.
The play — McAlester’s first defensive touchdown this season — gave the Buffs a much-needed burst of energy. The Buffs had looked sluggish physically and mentally in the first quarter, but their play improved considerably after Caden’s pick-six, and the Buffs kept focused through to the end of the game.
“We just needed somebody to step up and make plays,” Coach Pratt said.
“It just happened to be in his vicinity, and he made a great catch, and once he gets in the open field, it’s usually pretty good. ... Any time you get a big pick-six, that’s a momentum-switch that really hurts the opponent.”
After the Buffs turned back Dustin Basks on fourth-and-2 at their own 11, Wood took his team 84 yards — picking up 56 on one pass to Cade Harkins — downfield before rushing 6 yards for the touchdown and a 28-14 lead with 1:05 left in the first half. Wood finished as the team’s leading rusher, picking up 178 yards on the ground and averaging more than 8 yards per carry.
Wood regularly attacked the Zebras’ defensive line, using his size and strength to drag Claremore defenders behind him as he picked up extra yards. It usually took two or more Zebras to finally drag Wood to the turf.
“They were covering my receivers pretty well on a lot of plays,” Wood said.
“Our run game’s always been pretty good, but being able to work it like that always makes it stronger.”
The Buffs stopped the Zebras on the last drive of the first half and the first drive of the second half, then Smith broke off another 20-yard touchdown run for a 35-14 lead. Brown connected with Basks for a 70-yard touchdown pass late in the third, but Wood found Mason Bumphus for a 60-yard touchdown pass that made it 42-21 with 17 seconds left in the third.
Bumphus dropped the first pass thrown his way Friday night, missing what might’ve turned into a touchdown pass. But Wood went back to Bumphus on the next play and Bumphus hauled it in for 17 yards, converting a fourth-and-6 and setting up Smith’s game-tying first touchdown.
“I run a four-step out, then turn it up the field and go vertical,” Bumphus said of his touchdown reception. “After I dropped that (potential) touchdown pass, I just told myself I had to catch everything, and it was good from there.”
The Zebras moved the ball on the Buffs throughout the game, but they gave away too many possessions to really challenge the Buffs’ lead. Claremore had a third-and-2 situation at the McAlester 22 in the third, but Cade Harkins picked off Brown and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown.
“I just saw the guy hitch up and run a quick little route,” Harkins said. “Just read the quarterback’s eyes, and I ran for the end zone. It felt good to get a little revenge.”
Basks made it 49-28 on an 85-yard kickoff-return touchdown right after Harkins' pick-six. McAlester struggled all night to tackle to Basks, leading to 181 all-purpose offensive yards, including the 70-yard touchdown in which Basks crossed up two McAlester defenders to convert a second-and-19 situation into seven points.
Smith responded to Basks’ big catch with a 49-yard touchdown run on the Buffs' next possession to once again make it a four-possession game. Smith finished with 13 carries for 134 yards and three touchdowns, having equal success cutting up the middle and running around the edge.
“It was just a game of mistakes, and we made too many of them, and they outplayed us tonight,” Claremore coach Rob Gilbreath said.
“You take four plays away and it’s a different ballgame.”
Along with converting all eight extra-point attempts, Taeam Kang kicked a 42-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter, setting a school record for longest field goal at Hook Eales Stadium. Both teams moved to 2-1 with McAlester’s win.
Contact Matt Goisman at email@example.com.