The Cleburne Yellow Jackets bounced back from a disappointing loss to Arlington Seguin with an outstanding effort against Burleson Centennial, but the Spartans overcame a 15-point deficit and used some late-game magic to stun the Jackets in a 56-55 overtime win Friday at Yellow Jacket Stadium.
Cleburne (4-2, 2-2) held a 49-41 lead with 1:22 left and the Spartans 80 yards away from the end zone. After Centennial quarterback Hank Meyer was knocked out of the game with an injury earlier in the fourth quarter, the Spartans (6-1, 4-1) put senior wingback Jaylon Jackson in at quarterback.
After picking up five yards on fourth-and-5 to keep the Spartans alive, Jackson took off 70 yards for an improbable touchdown with 4 seconds left to pull Centennial to within two points. Then Jackson scored on the two-point conversion to tie it at 49, sending the game to overtime.
In overtime, the Spartans easily scored on just two plays; after a 20-yard run by Jackson, Zionn Ababio scored from five yards out, and the extra point by Josh Garcia was good for a 56-49 lead.
On Cleburne’s overtime possession, the Jackets faced fourth-and-goal from the 3 when Gunner Hammond found tight end Ethan Steck wide open for a TD on a brilliant play design by coach Casey Walraven.
The Jackets sent the extra-point unit onto the field to try to tie it and send it to a second overtime period, but Centennial coach Kyle Geller called timeout.
After the timeout, Walraven sent his offense onto the field as the Jackets went for the win on the two-point conversion. But the Spartan defense stuffed Cleburne’s option play as Centennial held on for the 56-55 win.
“It’s one of those things where we’re so close to getting over that hump,” Walraven said. “You can see it in a championship program like Centennial, who has won several playoff games in their recent history, and you see that demeanor about them; they just find a way.
“It’s frustrating to go back and count the thousand ways we could’ve won the game. At the end of the day, you’ve got to give them credit. They executed when they had to and pulled out the win.”
Walraven said the plan at the start of their overtime possession was to go for 2 and the win. But being faced with fourth down changed things from a playcalling stance.
“The play we scored the TD on was the play we were going to use to go for 2 and win it on that play,” Walraven said. “I firmly believed we would’ve won it on that play. But we couldn’t get in the end zone on three downs like we needed to. We had to extend the game with that play on fourth down, so we couldn’t save it. We used it for the TD and we executed it.”
Walraven said in addition to seeing Centennial score so easily in overtime, he wants Cleburne to be an aggressive team, and that’s why he opted for the two-point attempt.
“I hesitated to kick it and when they called timeout, we decided to stick to what we are; we’re an attacking team,” he said. “We’re trying to turn the program around, and we’re not going to turn it around by sitting back and playing it safe. We’ve got to attack. And I wanted to make sure we continue to send that message to the kids.
“I can look back at the play call because it didn’t work and there’s a thousand things I wish I could’ve done. Those kids gave it all they had and fought for it, but Centennial made the play.”
Even reaching the overtime period was a bit of a small miracle for Centennial, which is no stranger to miracles after pulling off an unlikely 23-21 last-second comeback win over Midlothian two weeks ago.
With Cleburne protecting an eight-point lead, the Spartans were driving with under 2:30 left when Centennial fumbled a bad snap, and Cleburne’s Jaxon Bigham recovered.
The Jackets took over at their own 47 with 2:03 left, needing only one first down to kill the clock, but Centennial had all three timeouts remaining. On a pivotal third-and-2, Hammond appeared to have an opening, but the Spartan defense dropped him from behind at the line of scrimmage.
With 1:30 left, Cleburne decided to punt it on fourth-and-2 and force the Spartans to drive the length of the field without their quarterback. But Jackson accounted for all 80 yards on the drive, including the jaw-dropping 70-yard TD run with 4 seconds left.
“I was nervous, but I was trying to get as many yards as I could and get out of bounds,” Jackson said. “When I was running, I looked at the clock and saw I had 15 seconds left, so I tried to get a little more, then I saw an opening and ran it in. It was all God.
“We don’t give up. We don’t give up at all. We just keep fighting. It’s crazy. I can’t believe it.”
Sometimes special players make special plays and there’s nothing you can do about it, and that was the case with Jackson.
“He’s an amazing athlete,” Walraven said of Jackson. “They put him there and all eyes were on him. You know he’s going to have the ball and regardless, he was still able to do that. He’s just a different caliber of athlete that you don’t see every day. … He’s a special player and he made a special play for them.”
Geller said without Jackson — who also returned a kickoff 85 yards for Centennial’s first TD — the Spartans would’ve been in trouble.
“It’s almost like he’s not fair,” Geller said. “I’m sure glad he’s on our side. He’s a special, special kid that doesn’t give up. He deserves every accolade he gets with his personality and character and the way he works. If we don’t have Jaylon, the game would probably be lopsided.”
While it was a heartbreaking loss for Cleburne, Walraven said he was proud of what the Jackets showed in giving a 6-1 Centennial team all it could handle — a week after an uninspiring loss to a Seguin team that had previously lost 15 in a row.
“I told them after the game, I went from being probably the most disappointed I’ve ever been in a team last week to the most proud I’ve ever been of a team this week,” Walraven said. “We won a lot of playoff games in Grandview and Kennedale, and I was extremely proud of those guys. But for what this group is trying to fight and get through, I can’t express how proud I am for them to bounce back and battle those guys like this.”
Geller and Jackson each gave Cleburne props for how tough of a battle the Jackets gave them.
“Credit to Cleburne for the way they came out tonight and played us and the way they fought and the way coach Walraven got his kids to bounce back after such a disappointment,” Geller said. “I can’t say enough about Cleburne. I don’t know what to say about us. The one good thing I can say about us is we don’t quit. Other than that, we’ve got a ways to go as a team.”
“We knew it wasn’t going to be a ‘gimme’ game, like coach Geller said,” Jackson said. “That’s a great team. I don’t know how they played against Seguin but that’s a good team and they played us hard.”
Cleburne won the turnover battle, 4-1, as the Spartans lost four fumbles. But Centennial partially made up for those turnovers by winning the special teams battle, including two kickoff returns for TDs.
In addition to Jackson’s 85-yarder in the first quarter, which cut Cleburne’s lead to 14-6, Kendall Earheart returned a kickoff 66 yards to give the Spartans a 41-35 lead with 10:46 left.
Cleburne held a 21-6 lead after the first quarter as the Jackets scored on a 58-yard pass from Hammond to Isaak Cunningham, and runs of four and 18 yards by Hammond.
The Spartans dominated the second quarter, however, as Jeff Kirven scored on a 25-yard run and Meyer added a one-yard run to pull Centennial to within 21-19 with 4:40 left until halftime. Then the Spartans took their first lead on a 59-yard TD pass from Meyer to Jackson to give Centennial a 27-21 edge with 58 seconds left in the half.
There were five lead changes in the second half alone as the Jackets and Spartans went back and forth.
Jackson finished with 143 rushing yards on just eight carries and 71 receiving yards on two catches with three total TDs. Kirven added 70 rushing yards and a TD on 14 carries.
Hammond had a huge night for Cleburne as he completed 25-of-36 passes for 328 yards, three TDs and one interception to go along with 90 rushing yards and four TDs on 24 carries.
Cunningham had 11 catches for 116 yards and a TD while Gavin Naquin had nine receptions for 112 yards and a TD. Naquin’s TD grab came on an eight-yard reception on third-and-goal with 3:33 left that extended Cleburne’s lead to 49-41.
Cleburne out-gained Centennial in total yards, 482-387, and won the time of possession battle, 26:05 to 19:56.
Up next for Cleburne is a visit to No. 1 Aledo, and Walraven said he’s looking for a similar mindset going into Bearcat Stadium as the Jackets had against the Spartans.
“You’re going to be disappointed [with this result], but as a program, you’ve got to use this to let the confidence build in you and understand Centennial is one of the best teams in the region and one of the best teams in the state, and you had them against the ropes,” Walraven said. “This is what we can be. So we have to make the decision mentally to go into Aledo with the same attitude. And then finish the run those last three games, and if we can play like we did tonight and make some corrections, we’ll be proud of what the final result is.”
Centennial hosts Waco University for homecoming on Friday.