When things are going right, the slimmest of margins can break your way. Of course you have to take advantage of those breaks to come out with a victory.
This is where the Denison Yellow Jackets are right now, sitting undefeated due to hustle and grit and making the most of an opportunity each Friday night. There have been hiccups, but for the third straight week, in the final minutes of a close game, they have found the deciding points or the deciding stop to win.
“You don’t want to be the one to make the play fail,” said senior running back Kenny Gaffney, who produced a season-high 90 yards on 15 carries. “We have to execute and then play to the best of our ability.”
Ty McFail came up with an interception return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and Abilene Wylie’s execution on an extra point that sailed wide to go with a missed field goal in the final minute proved to be the difference as Denison edged the Bulldogs, 24-23, in non-district action at Dr. Rene and Eva Gerard Field at Munson Stadium on Friday night.
DeCurious Smith and Austin Emery had touchdown runs and Emery booted a 30-yard field goal for Denison (3-0), which opened the season with three victories for the first time since 2008.
“It’s great to be 3-0. That’s a dang good football team over there,” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said. “What you saw was two really good football teams in a playoff-type atmosphere early in the season. We’re really confident but I reminded them about what got them here — coachability and work ethic.”
Cason Grant led the way with 14 carries for 115 yards and a TD and had four catches for 62 yards and a score from Tyler O’Connor for Abilene Wylie (2-1), which was ranked eighth in the Class 4A Associated Press statewide poll.
It was O’Connor’s 41-yard touchdown pass to Gatlin Martin with 4:57 remaining that looked like the equalizer until Cameron Dawsey pushed the PAT to the left. Instead, the Jackets held the lead — but also their breath — as Wylie had a chance at a field goal to win it.
Denison was unable to pick up a first down and the Bulldogs got the ball back with 3:38 left. They made it as far as the 31-yard line before Grant attempted a 48-yard kick which didn’t even make it to the end zone.
“This group has prepared harder mentally and physically,” McFail said. “We’ve proven as a team we can turn that into winning when we do what we’re supposed to do.”
McFail had put Denison in front with a 38-yard interception return for a score on Wylie’s first snap of the fourth quarter. O’Connor tried to hit Martin in the middle of the field but on his diving, rolling attempt it somehow didn’t hit the ground as an incomplete pass but hit McFail in the hands as it caromed in the air.
“He had it when he hit the ground and it popped up off his chest. I grabbed it and took off with it,” McFail said. “I saw the lane on the sideline and that’s where my eyes took me.”
The senior safety returned it down the left side just moments after Wylie had tied the game at 17. Grant caught a 20-yard TD in the right side of the end zone with 20 seconds left in the third, taking advantage of the third Denison fumble of the night.
Denison opened the scoring in the second half when it cashed in an interception by Mateo Reyes. He picked it off at his own 15 and brought it back just past midfield. The Jackets needed only seven plays from there and Smith scored from six yards out.
Two plays later Logan Wagner had his third fumble recovery of the season and Denison extended the lead to 17-10 with Emery’s field goal in the middle of the third.
Denison not only overcame the turnovers but 13 penalties for 130 yards.
“We made some mistakes,” Rogers said. “Can’t do that. But I think it’s situations we can look at, learn from and figure out how to be better.”
Grant gave Abilene Wylie a 10-7 half-time lead with a long touchdown run a few minutes before the break.
A penalty knocked Denison back 10 yards from the Wylie 21 and Emery tried to option as three defenders closed in. Brady Horn fell on the ball to set up the Bulldogs at their 35 and the first play saw Grant break out of the backfield and to the left with 1:49 remaining in the second quarter.
The Jackets had a chance to go back in front with a two-minute drill that covered 47 yards before a Hail Mary was short as the clock expired.
Denison’s first play to open the game was a Gaffney fumble just past midfield. Wylie picked up a first down before Jordin Hunter knocked down a fourth-down pass.
The Bulldogs took a 3-0 advantage when Grant kicked a 34-yard field goal with 7:21 left in the first.
The Jackets were still trying to get in gear but Wylie couldn’t capitalize on another possession just outside the red zone. McFail came up with a hit to force an incomplete pass to end that drive.
Denison then went 77 yards in 12 plays with Gaffney and Emery doing most of the work on the ground before Bubba Roberts caught a 23-yard pass out of the backfield on third-and-five to the Wylie six-yard line. Emery scored from three yards out with 39 seconds left in the first quarter.