Kelly Wray/For The Duncan Banner
The Duncan Banner
Not that long ago Velma-Alma was staring at a 1-3 record and wondering what it would do without starting quarterback Ty Richardson.
Now, the Comets are preparing to host a playoff game. That’s the difference made by four weeks and a physical victory over Empire.
Dallen Mercer gained 210 yards and scored two touchdowns, and the V-A defense nearly pitched a shutout Friday, as the Comets beat Empire, 20-7, here at Ric Johnson Memorial Field.
The Comets’ win, coupled with a Rush Springs victory over Healdton on Friday, allowed V-A to secure second place in District A-4. First and second place teams in each district are awarded home opening round playoff games. Velma-Alma is 6-3 overall and 5-1 in A-4.
Empire, which could have earned its first home playoff date since the early 1990s with a win here Friday, will finish third in the district and travel to an opening round destination. The Bulldogs are 6-3 overall and 4-2 in the district.
Empire will close its regular season campaign next Friday with a trip to Bray-Doyle. Velma-Alma will play host to Healdton in its season finale on the same night.
From the outset Friday, the Comets made no bones about their physical strategy. They wanted to run the ball up the middle -- and they did.
Freshman quarterback Andrew McGuire, who stepped under center after Richardson was lost for the season a month ago, distributed the ball to running backs 44 times and watched them gain 266 yards. That’s an average of more than six yards per carry.
“Our line played good,” Mercer said. “They had a lot of heart. They know we can’t do anything without them. No battle is won outside the trenches, so our lineman put that in their minds and did what they had to do.
“After watching film, we realized (Empire) hadn’t had a physical game yet. So, we decided to come out and be more physical than them.”
Empire coach Tony Roberts wasn’t happy with his club’s approach to the game nor its execution.
The Bulldogs allowed Mercer to run the opening kickoff 48 yards to the Empire side of the field.
Still, it looked as if Empire might force a three-and-out when V-A faced third-and-one two plays later. But Checotah Lynn’s 2-yard gain gave the Comets a fresh set of downs, and Mercer followed with runs of 27 and 8 yards. The 8-yard dash landed him in the end zone.
It was less than two minutes into the game, and Velma-Alma led 8-0.
“You play like you practice, and that’s how we practiced this week,” Roberts said. “We got out-played and out-coached. We haven’t learned what it takes to get to the next level, and until we do, we’ll be a third or fourth place team. It’s not just the kids. It’s the coaches and everyone.”
Empire started to answer with a drive of its own. The Bulldogs moved from their own 37 to the V-A 21 and neared the red-zone with a first down.
But a shotgun snap from center sailed over quarterback Tanner Shorter’s head and the senior was tackled for a 10-yard loss. Two plays later, Shorter’s pass on fourth-and-21 feel incomplete.
The Comets capitalized on Empire’s misfire. They marched 68 yards in 11 plays, and McGuire carried it into the end zone from one yard out. His pass for a two-point conversion fell incomplete, but V-A held a 14-0 halftime advantage.
Empire narrowed the gap on its first drive of the second half. The Bulldogs marched 83 yard on six plays, and the series was capped by a 17-yard scoring sprint by Shorter.
After that, however, Empire didn’t advance any farther than the V-A 40. A fumble ended that drive, and then a fumble to start Empire’s next series set up the Comets’ last score.
After setting up on the Empire 19, V-A ran six consecutive rushing plays, including five straight in which the ball went to Mercer. He eventually iced the game with a 2-yard plunge with 2:53 left.