By LARRY BOWEN
The A&M Consolidated football team learned the difference between finishing strong and a fantastic finish Friday night, and all it cost the Tigers and their fans was a few anxious moments.
Consol let a huge second-half lead slip away, but finally stopped Round Rock McNeil with 18 seconds left to hold on for a 44-39 victory in its season opener at Tigerland Stadium.
A sensational start by junior running back Chris Nutall helped the Tigers grab an early lead that swelled to 35-10 early in the second half. However, the Mavericks scored on their next four possessions to take a stunning 39-38 advantage with 4 minutes, 27 seconds remaining.
"That was a little character check," Consol coach Jim Slaughter said. "One of the big concerns we had was our ability to finish it off, and that came true tonight."
The Tigers weren't done, though. Consol marched 76 yards to regain the lead, capitalizing on a pair of 15-yard penalties that led to a 23-yard touchdown run by Clinton Banks. The 2-point try failed, leaving the Tigers clinging to a 44-39 lead with 3:10 left.
McNeil charged right back down the field as senior running back Adrian Smith added to an already amazing night. Smith finished with 318 yards on 40 bruising carries, and he gutted the Tiger defense for 39 yards on the last drive as the Mavericks moved from their 33 to a first down at the Consol 19.
With 1:22 left, McNeil opted not to pound Smith up the middle again, instead throwing to him on a screen pass that was sniffed out by linebacker Cody Gunnels for a 1-yard loss.
"We felt like the screen would pop wide open," McNeil coach Robert Wilcox said. "The linebacker read it and did a great job. When that wasn't a good play for us, then we had to do something different [rather than run Smith]."
A false start penalty and a nice stop by Nelson Devin on an option run by Cooper Lewis left McNeil at the 25-yard line, facing fourth-and-16 with 25 seconds left. Cole Smith's pass was intercepted by senior cornerback Trent Vittrup at the 4.
Vittrup, whose first-half interception set up a touchdown, made his first varsity start in place of injured Andrew Fletcher.
"It means a lot that we could finally stop them, because they were kicking our butts most of the second half," Vittrup said. "That play [by Gunnels on the screen pass] was real big. We were able to force their hand a little bit."
The teams combined for 957 yards of offense, with McNeil gaining 510, and the Tiger defense needed some help from the clock to make its last stand.
"When the clock started helping us and they couldn't give it to the big boy and let him bull us over, it put the game a little bit back into our corner," Slaughter said.
Smith is listed at 216 pounds on the McNeil roster, but he looked and ran much bigger against Consol. He rolled up 171 yards in the second half as the Mavericks avoided what appeared to be on its way to becoming a rout driven by Nutall, a 165-pounder with dazzling speed.
Nutall was promoted to the varsity two games into last season, so he played against the McNeil JV as a sophomore. He introduced himself to the Mavericks with an amazing first half Friday.
He took his first carry 65 yards for a touchdown as the Tigers scored on their second play from scrimmage. Nutall added a 58-yard scoring run and a 63-yard touchdown reception from Dillen Ashton that staked Consol to a 28-10 halftime lead.
"My goal is that every time I touch the ball I score," Nutall said.
Nutall came close in the first half, when he had four touches for 218 yards and three scores. He finished with 195 yards on seven carries.