CORSICANA — The Normangee Panthers had no answer for Beckville’s Ryan Harris, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Harris almost single-handedly led the Bearcats to a 22-19 victory in the Class 2A Division I regional semifinal playoffs at Tiger Stadium on Friday night.
Harris rushed for 214 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder had big run after big run and added 83 yards passing.
But it was Harris’ defensive play — a pivotal tackle and an interception — that prevented Normangee (11-1) from adding to its historic season with what would have been a most improbable but impressive comeback victory.
Normangee suffered a huge blow midway through the first quarter when Harris leveled senior quarterback Mason Hardy with a jarring tackle.
Hardy, who had accounted for 3,246 yards of total offense and 37 touchdowns, managed to return for a couple plays on defense and kick an extra point, but he showed concussion-like symptoms, so his night was done.
“Mason is such a competitor,” Normangee coach Keith Sitton said. “You know, you have to drag him kicking and screaming as he goes off the field.”
Normangee rallied behind junior wide receiver Izaha Jones, who rushed for 205 yards on 15 carries. Jones had a trio of highlight touchdown runs, slicing through Beckville’s defense on each one. He gave Normangee a 19-14 lead early in the fourth quarter with a 53-yard touchdown run. Beckville had him trapped behind the line and even put hands on him, but Jones broke free and left the rest of the defense watching.
“There were plays tonight that he just willed them through,” Sitton said
Beckville and Harris answered in just over two minutes for a 22-19 lead.
Earlier in the game, Beckville failed to build on a 14-7 halftime lead in a trio of mistake-filled possessions against an inspired Normangee defense. But Harris jump-started the game-winning drive with a bullish 28-yard run. He added three more runs, and Beckville’s J’Koby Williams put the Bearcats back in the lead with a 20-yard touchdown run up the gut as the defense focused on Harris, who added the two-point conversion run with 8:23 left.
Sitton said the Panthers still felt confident down just three points.
“I thought we were going to finish it off,” he said.
Beckville tightened up its defense, but Normangee still managed to pick up a pair of first downs, including one on an 8-yard reception by Nathan Bosley that converted a fourth-and-7 on Jones’ first completion of the game. But a holding penalty on the next play forced the Panthers to attempt another pass. The ever-present Harris came up with an interception — the game’s lone turnover — and the Bearcats (10-3) ran out the final 3:50.
“[Harris] is the best offensive football player we’ve seen this year by far,” Sitton said. “He’s got deceptive speed, but he’s such a powerful runner.”
Jones countered that with an uncanny knack for seeing the field and reading blocks. He wasn’t caught behind the line and had seven runs of at least 11 yards.
“Izaha is a special talent,” Sitton said. “We’ve tried to find different ways to get him the ball. He’s always been one of our quarterbacks. We feel we have a 1 and a 1A. He gives us a different element when we put him back there. He’s just a playmaker.”
Jones and the other team’s underclassmen will try to build on the school’s first 11-0 start in school history.
“I can’t say enough for our kids for the type of men they are,” Sitton said. “They showed a lot of grit and character tonight. We went in at half down by only seven. It didn’t feel like we were down seven. It was a difficult, tough first half, and the way we responded is the way we’ve responded to adversity all year.”
Normangee got a much needed spark to start the third quarter when Harris slipped on third-and-1, then Beckville was called for holding on fourth down, forcing the Bearcats to punt.
Jones carried five times on the ensuing eight-play, 88-yard drive, scoring on a nifty 20-yard run. But Normangee’s backup kicker missed the extra point.
Normangee and Beckville both wasted scoring chances before halftime.
Normangee reached Beckville’s 20 on a 39-yard pass from Hardy to Jones, but the Panthers lost 20 yards on a bad third-down snap, forcing them to punt.
The Bearcats couldn’t add to their 14-7 lead in the final 1:56 because of penalties, and they had only one timeout left. A 19-yard reception by Harris on a pass from wide receiver Matt Barr to the Normangee 15 was negated by an illegal receiver downfield penalty. That came on the heels of an illegal motion penalty.
A penalty also denied Beckville a chance to add to its 7-0 lead. Williams had an 8-yard reception on the first play of the second quarter to the Normangee 42, but the fourth-and-7 conversion was nullified by an illegal formation.
Beckville punted and Normangee answered with a 13-play, 94-yard drive to tie the game at 7. Jones scored on a 43-yard run, sweeping right then cutting back across the field to convert the fourth-and-3 with 6:15 left in the first half.
Beckville regained the lead on a 9-yard Harris touchdown run. The Bearcats overcame a holding penalty on the six-play, 67-yard drive. The big play was a 16-yard run by Williams on a reverse with a 15-yard penalty added against Normangee for a late hit. Harris covered the last 39 yards on three runs.
The Bearcats set the tone on their first possession, covering 75 yards in 11 plays. The key play was a 5-yard run to the Normangee 28 by Harris, who faked a handoff to the motion man. Harris scored on a 17-yard run, also coming off a faked handoff.