By Matt Goisman
CHOCTAW — The MacArthur Highlanders could defend against the run or the pass, but not both at the same time.
Once McAlester’s running game finally wore the Highlanders down, MacArthur’s defense couldn’t stop either.
McAlester quarterback Dalton Wood and running back Jarome Smith combined for five rushing touchdowns, leading the Buffaloes past MacArthur, 56-20, in Friday’s 5A state semifinal at Bill Jensen Field at Choctaw High School.
McAlester will face top-ranked Guthrie in the 5A state championship Friday at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.
“They were really banging us off the line and making it hard for us to be able to throw the football,” Buffs coach Bryan Pratt said. “We just kind of settled down, went back to pounding it in there after we had a lead. They started trying to come back, and good things happen when you can run the football.”
Though a two-play MacArthur drive led to a 6-yard rushing touchdown by Will Collins to cut McAlester’s lead to 30-20 early in the third, McAlester’s defense stepped up on the Highlanders’ next possession. With MacArthur at the McAlester 40-yard line, Buffs defensive back Mason Bumphus ran a corner-blitz, sacking Collins for a 21-yard loss.
“They get in this tight ‘Gemini’ split, and if the receiver on the opposite side motions to your side, the corner’s supposed to blitz,” Bumphus said.
“I blitzed the play before, he stepped up and I missed him. So the second time, whenever I ran in there, I knew I wasn’t going to miss him again.”
Unable to make back the 31 yards to a first down, the Highlanders had to punt, but Riley Smith broke through the line and blocked it. The Buffs took over at the Highlander 39, and two plays later Jarome Smith burst 30 yards up the middle for a touchdown that made it 36-20 McAlester.
The Buffs’ defense forced a three-and-out on MacArthur’s next drive, but the Highlanders’ punt pinned the Buffs at their own 3-yard line.
Relying exclusively on their running game, the Buffs drove 97 yards and chewed 5:03 off the clock before Wood punched it in from 4 yards out to make it 42-20 Buffs.
Wood had fumbled earlier in the drive, but Jarome Smith alertly scooped the ball off the turf and turned what could’ve easily been a turnover or negative-yardage play into a 7-yard game. Jarome then rushed 27 yards on the next play to move the ball to the MacArthur 21.
MacArthur also could’ve held the Buffs to a 32-yard field goal attempt in that drive, but a Highlander jumped offside on fourth-and-4 to extend the drive.
“We made a lot of mistakes, and you can’t make mistakes in the semifinals and advance,” MacArthur coach Brett Manning said. “McAlester had a few fumbles that just bounced right back up into their hands, and we had mistakes that we really paid dearly for.”
Wood added a 2-yard touchdown run in the second and a 12-yard touchdown run with 8:46 left in the fourth. On MacArthur’s next drive after Wood’s fourth-quarter touchdown, Riley Smith strip-sacked Collins; Josh Peckio grabbed the ball and returned it 36 yards to the end zone.
Peckio’s first varsity touchdown put McAlester up 56-20 midway through the fourth and allowed the Buffs to substitute in their second string.
“All I saw was Riley make the tackle and the ball popped out,” Peckio said. “I was right there, so I just scooped and scored, like I’d been taught. It feels amazing.”
MacArthur went up 6-0 on a 60-yard pass to Korie Robinson with 8:27 left in the first, but Wood found Cade Harkins on a screen pass that turned into a 54-yard touchdown pass to put McAlester up 7-6.
“The hardest thing is just throwing it around those linemen whenever they read it and know it’s a screen,” Wood said. “If he can weave in and out of those linemen and our linemen can get ... a cleanup block, it usually works pretty well.”
MacArthur allowed the ensuing kickoff to hit the turf, and Zach Baugh jumped on it to give McAlester back the ball at the MacArthur 30. Wood found Bumphus deep for a 36-yard touchdown pass for a 14-6 lead three plays later.
Bumphus also made several key special-teams plays, including a punt that pinned MacArthur at its 1-yard line midway through the second. Jarome Smith then broke through the Highlanders’ offensive line, wrapping his arms around Collins in the end zone and forcing Collins to throw the ball out of bounds.
With no receivers near the sideline, officials quickly flagged Collins for intentional grounding, leading to a safety and a 23-13 McAlester lead.
“I don’t even think we called a blitz,” Jarome Smith said. “I don’t even know how I ended up in the backfield. I just saw I wasn’t going to be blocked, so I went.”
Jarome added, “We came in (knowing) how we were going to do things. They were successful at first, but we knew if we kept grinding and kept pounding it and kept pounding it, eventually we could make something happen.”
McAlester’s defense also sacked Collins three times, made 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and got an interception by safety Rhyln Stephens that set up a 14-yard touchdown run by Jarome Smith.
With the win, McAlester improved to 12-1. MacArthur ended its season 10-3.
Contact Matt Goisman at firstname.lastname@example.org.