By Matt Goisman
McALESTER — For all the wins and losses throughout the regular season, every football team in the playoffs has a record of 0-0.
The team that goes 4-0 will win a state championship, and the McAlester Buffaloes begin their playoffs tonight when they welcome the East Central Cardinals from Tulsa to Hook Eales Stadium.
The game is a rematch of the 2012 Class 5A semifinal, when East Central beat McAlester, 26-14.
“That’s definitely something that we’re looking forward to, getting a little bit of revenge,” Buffs coach Bryan Pratt said Wednesday.
“They’re the team that made us go home last year, and we’ll make sure that we’re not going to be going home this year. The difference is we get to play them at home, and it’s a great place for us to play.”
The Cardinals come to town as the fourth-seed in District 5A-4. They went 4-6 overall and 4-3 in district play during the regular season.
Quarterback Trevon Cherry, who started last year at that position, has been the Cardinals’ biggest offensive weapon this season. Cherry ranks among the best QBs in the state according to stats available on the Tulsa World website, having thrown for 22 touchdowns, rushed for nine more and recorded more than 2,500 combined passing and rushing yards.
“When you bring pressure, you have to make sure you get to him,” Pratt said of Cherry. “And if you don’t bring pressure, you have to try to contain him as much as possible. Where he beats you is he gets into open space and is able to find receivers running around.”
Quantel Givens and D.C. Pitts have been Cherry’s biggest targets at wide receiver. Givens recorded 819 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns during the regular season, while Pitts has recorded 692 yards and nine TDs.
The Buffs’ inability to throw the ball led to their downfall in 2012. Starting quarterback Dalton Wood returned last week after a four-game absence, throwing four touchdown passes against Tulsa Memorial.
“Our goal is to get 60-plus percent completion, and he was at 39 last week, which wasn’t good, and then (he threw) three picks,” Pratt said of Wood. “That’s what gets you beat, is turnovers. So he’s going to work to get better. We knew he’d be a little rusty, and he was, but he still had a lot of success.”
A strong Buffs passing game will in turn open up their running game, as the Cardinals will have to drop more players into pass-coverage.
Payton Trent led the Cardinals’ defense with 93 tackles, and Givens and Pitts each had two interceptions, both of which Pitts returned for touchdowns. But the Cardinals gave up an average of 38.8 points per game, ranking them last in their district during the regular season, and that’s good news for a Buffs offense that led Class 5A with 503 points.
“We feel like athletically we match up pretty well,” Pratt said.
“We’re hoping we can hit them on some big plays and just go out and play football like we’ve been playing. Let our offense develop the way it’s been developing and see what happens.”
Though Wood only played offense against Memorial, he played multiple downs at linebacker and punted before his ankle injury against Shawnee in Week 5. Pratt said Wood will return at linebacker Friday, giving the Buffs one more defensive player to sub in and out.
Mason Bumphus, however, will continue as the Buffs’ main punter. The Buffs haven’t punted more than three times in any game against a 5A team this season, and Bumphus has handled the position well.
“We have to be sound in everything we do, and we don’t ever try to put or kids in a situation where we’re not sound,” Pratt said.
For the third-ranked Buffs to win a state championship, they’ll likely have to beat three of the top five teams in 5A. A win against East Central means a potential second-round home game against second-ranked Carl Albert, then a potential semifinal at a neutral location against fifth-ranked Lawton MacArthur.
If the Buffs get past Lawton Mac, top-ranked Guthrie or fourth-ranked Shawnee could await them in the championship in December at Oklahoma State University.
“Our mentality is we’re not scared of anybody and we have to play everybody to win it,” Pratt said. “Our goal is not to get one or two games; it’s to go try to win it. We know we have to play everybody at some point in time, and to get two games at home is huge.”
McAlester and East Central kick off at 7 p.m.
Contact Matt Goisman at firstname.lastname@example.org.