HALLSVILLE — Things were touch and go for a few moments in the second half of Cleburne's season opener Friday at Hallsville, but the Yellow Jackets finished strong for a 42-26 victory over the Bobcats.
Cleburne's Cleo Chandler had a brilliant start to his senior season as the versatile running back/wide receiver found the end zone five times, including scoring runs of 16 and 56 yards in the fourth quarter to turn a 28-26 lead into a 42-26 victory.
Before the season, Cleburne Coach Casey Walraven said Chandler had the potential to have 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards. And Friday's performance was a glaring example of that potential. Chandler rushed for 153 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries and he hauled in 13 receptions for 135 yards and two touchdowns for a total of 288 yards from scrimmage on 33 touches.
“He saved us offensively. He did everything,” Walraven said of Chandler. “I still don't think he's near his peak and we're still trying to push him. He still doesn't know how good he really is. We've continued to push him. Sometimes it probably seems like we're hard on him and we probably are but it's because his ceiling is so high. He's an exceptional player and kid. He did a lot of good things obviously and there's a couple things he needs to get better at but he saved us offensively tonight, I know that.”
It's the third consecutive season Cleburne was victorious in its season opener, although this one was certainly different with the start of the season being delayed a month and then the Jackets having to travel three hours to East Texas.
“We're real proud of this win,” Walraven said. “Any time you come a distance like this, you're in uncharted waters out here. [Hallsville was] ready to play on both sides. They had a good crowd. Any time you can get a win, it's great. I'm real proud of them but we played pretty sloppy. We've got a long way to go and a lot of corrections to make.”
The Jackets jumped out to a 7-0 lead on the game's first drive when Gunner Hammond connected with Chandler for a 34-yard touchdown pass.
Early in the second quarter, the Bobcats tied it on a two-yard run by Jace Mosley.
Later in the first half, Cleburne reclaimed the lead on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Hammond to Chandler to put the Jackets back on top, 14-7.
Following a Cleburne defensive stop, the Jackets went back to work as Hammond capped off a drive with an eight-yard touchdown run to give Cleburne a 21-7 edge late in the first half.
With Hallsville threatening to put points on the board before halftime, Cleburne senior safety Anthony Chanta came away with a diving interception to preserve the 14-point lead at the break.
The Bobcats started the second half strong and got right back in it as quarterback Tyler Lee capped off a 14-play drive when he scored on a one-yard run. The extra point was no good, which made it 21-13.
Later in the third, Chandler gave Cleburne a two-score lead again when he scored from four yards out to make it 28-13 after Anthony Terronez's PAT.
But Hallsville wouldn't go away — and things got interesting early in the fourth. The Bobcats answered in the early stages of the final 12 minutes when Lee connected with Brayden Walker for a 39-yard touchdown pass to make it 28-19 after another missed PAT.
The Jackets then turned it over on their ensuing possession and Hallsville needed only one play to cash in on the takeaway as lee and Walker hooked up again, this time from 47 yards out to pull to within two points at 28-26 with 10 minutes remaining.
But as he did all night, Chandler settled things down with a 16-yard touchdown run to put Cleburne ahead, 35-26.
Walraven said it was a good example of how far the Jackets have come mentally over the past couple seasons, being able to handle the adversity that hit them which allowed Hallsville to make it a two-point game. Instead of panicking, the Jackets responded.
“They had all the momentum in the world there and we still found a way to win,” Walraven said. “We talk about our offseasons, not just physically what it's done for us, but mentally. We were able to get the tide turned a little bit after they got the momentum.”
Later in the game, Chandler broke free and tightroped his way down the sideline for a 56-yard touchdown run to cap the scoring.
Hammond completed 20-of-30 passes for 236 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Hammond could've had three or four touchdowns but the Jackets struggled with a couple of untimely drops in the game.
In addition to Chanta's interception, senior Braden Gunn had an interception as the Jacket secondary came away with two key takeaways.
Cleburne senior linebacker Sterling Bryant had a solid season-opening performance with a couple of key first-half sacks.
“He's the toughest kid we've got,” Walraven said. “It's great to have a linebacker that is tough the way he is. He's just hard-nosed. He laid some pretty good shots and played with a lot of enthusiasm. It's good for him to come out and play the way he does. He's rough and that's what you want in a linebacker. He led the defense for sure tonight.”
In week 2, Cleburne will make another trip to East Texas to visit Jacksonville.
In addition to fixing some overall sloppy play, Walraven said they're still searching for a couple of players to step up in key positions before they can reach their full potential as a team.
“There's a couple positions on both sides we're still trying to sort through,” he said. “We still haven't found exactly who we are in some areas to feel solid. Until we figure that out and have some kids step up, we're going to continue to need to have that competition going and see who emerges to take those spots.”
Jeff Shelton (via Longview News-Journal) contributed to this report.