A game marred by a combined 22 penalties and seven turnovers might not have been the prettiest contest for Paul Laurence Dunbar on Friday night, but the win was as handsome as a homecoming court for the Bulldogs after they held off Anderson County 40-21.
Senior Isaiah Yeast, in his first game back from and ACL strain, scooped up a forced fumble and ran in 68 yards for the game-clinching touchdown with 4:26 left.
“Our linebacker like slung him and he dropped it and I scooped it and ran,” Yeast said. “This means a lot because we came off a four-game losing streak … And we’ve come back and won two straight and won our first one at home by three scores.”
It wasn’t easy, but for a short while, it looked like Dunbar (2-4) might win going away. When Isaiah’s brother Markel intercepted a tipped option pass off Anderson County running back Bryndon Labhart near the end of the first quarter, it seemed the rout was on.
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Dunbar already enjoyed a 14-0 lead and, even with a penalty, it had the ball in good field position at its own 43-yard line. But then, things are seldom easy for first-year coach Chris Mullins’ Bulldogs.
Junior quarterback Gavin Bugg fumbled on third-and-17, giving the Bearcats new life deep in Dunbar territory. Three plays later, Labhart made amends with a 1-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 14-7.
Every time we make one of these mistakes, it teaches us again, it reiterates the fact that we have to stay focused for four quarters, every minute, especially in 6A football.
Chris Mullins, Dunbar head coach
On the next series, Dunbar looked to have a quick answer, but a 52-yard touchdown play was called back for an ineligible receiver downfield. Two more penalties put the Bulldogs in a fourth-and-38 situation and forced a punt. Labhart made the Bulldogs pay again, this time with a 56-yard rushing TD to even the score at 14 with 6:59 to go until half.
“I keep telling our kids we have to make these decisions, these penalties because we’ve got to learn from them,” Dunbar’s Mullins said. “These mistakes, they’re good for us right now because they’re learning experiences. And every time we make one of these mistakes, it teaches us again, it reiterates the fact that we have to stay focused for four quarters, every minute, especially in 6A football.”
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, mistakes were in ample supply for both teams. After a few stalled drives and punts, Anderson County got the ball at its own 41-yard line with 2:22 left in the half. But a delay of game penalty killed the momentum, and on second-and-15, junior quarterback Tyler Peters fumbled the ball on his own 46 giving it over to Dunbar with 1:07 till half.
Here, Dunbar proved that when it doesn’t make mistakes, it’s an explosive team. It took only five plays and 56 seconds for Bugg to find Markel Yeast for a 22-yard score that put the Bulldogs back up 21-14.
Dunbar deferred the coin toss in order to get the ball to start the second half, but any momentum gained from the Yeast score looked to have been seized back by Anderson County when Zach Labhart jumped an out rout and returned the interception 31 yards for a game-tying touchdown.
269 yards, 3 TDsTotals for Dunbar QB Gavin Bugg, who completed 20 of 29 pass attempts
The Bulldogs answered quickly, however, with a pair of long pass plays to senior wide receiver Tre Homer. The first, a 44-yard bomb down the right sideline got Dunbar out of its own end. The second, a bubble screen to the right, was tossed almost too low for Homer to catch it and threw off the timing of the play. No matter, Homer turned back across the field and took it to the other sideline for his second score of the game, putting Dunbar up 27-20. The extra point was blocked.
“It was very close. It was like at the ground. I had to make sure it didn’t touch the ground,” Homer said. “I was really scared. I wanted to score on that play anyway, but it kind of broke down and I had to make something on my own.”
Markel Yeast fumbled at the start of the fourth quarter, but Dunbar’s defense held and forced a punt. Bugg scrambled for 36 yards and Mullins fed the Bearcats a steady diet of Alex Bard the rest of the way, culminating in a 14-yard Bard score that pushed the lead to 33-21.
Dunbar has a week off before tackling cross-town rival Bryan Station on Oct. 7. Despite the losing record, Mullins seems to have a loose bunch that’s having fun as evidenced by an unusual fourth-and-9 punt fake early in the second half. Mullins said he knew the play would work, and at halftime, he said he would call it. But when senior punter Kaelen Whiteside raised his arm up on fourth-and-9 from his own 28, Mullins was surprised. The pass to Markel Yeast went for 30 yards and a first down.
“I’d like to take credit for that, but that was on the team themselves,” Mullins said, smiling. “They just decided to do it without my permission. … Maybe they thought I was going to call it. … In fact, I had told one of my offensive linemen earlier when he said ‘look, you’re not going to fake a punt inside the 20 are ya?’ And I said ‘no, I have more sense than that.’”