CNHI News Services
It took a full half to get it right, but Hilldale found a way to do Friday night what no team had done this season — slow the Verdigris ground game to a crawl.
Then, the hands of Bradley Campbell and the running of Jamaul Cullom took care of the rest as the Hornets, down 20-7 at the half in this Class 3A playoff, rallied past No. 3 Verdigris 36-23 to get to the third round of the postseason for the first time in school history.
Hilldale (11-1) advances to play Blanchard, a 39-7 winner over Madill, in next week’s quarterfinals. And they’ll do it with a defense that found its swagger after being physically whipped over the first 24 minutes.
Instead of 2,000-yard rusher Tanner Smith, it was his backfield mate J.D. Hanslovan who did the big damage early, scoring on runs of 47 and 25 yards. The bigger of the two backs at 6-0, 210 passed the 100-yard mark a little over a minute into the second quarter. All but one of his seven first-half carries were for nine yards or more.
Smith had 75 yards at the break but it took him 21 carries to do that. It would be a sign of things to come.
The Hornets held them both to a combined 59 yards in the second half.
“We went in and coach (defensive coordinator Travis Bryant) helped us spruce up some things,” said Cullom, an outside linebacker. “We had to squeeze the gaps. They were killing us in those. We pulled it together and everything changed.”
Cullom had a key stop on a fourth down that forced a field goal with Hilldale up 28-20 and had the final defensive stop of the game on a sack near midfield. He ran for three touchdowns, including a 31-yarder that gave the Hornets a 21-20 lead with 5:38 left in the third quarter. He added a 7-yard run with :04 left in the third to make it 28-20 and finished it with a 63-yard burst up the middle for the game’s final score with 3:41 remaining.
But equal or greater credit offensively goes to the passing combination of receiver Bradley Campbell and quarterback Chandler Puckett. When nothing was going Hilldale’s way early on, Campbell broke clear past midfield and caught a pass from Puckett, taking it 80 yards to tie the game at 7.
In a similar play to start the second half, he was again on the end of a Puckett toss for 53 yards and a score to draw within a touchdown at 20-14. But it was a combination of catches that helped finish the Cardinals.
Puckett found him for 44 yards on a third-and-7 play to the Verdigris 33, but an illegal shift brought the ball back. On the very next play Puckett found him again for 19 yards and a first down at the Hornets’ 37. It also set up Cullom’s final touchdown gallop which came on the very next play.
“We knew they were stronger against the run but when Chandler got me on that first one I thought ‘man, we can throw on these guys all night,’” said Campbell. “When we got that one wiped out on the penalty, I went back and told him I wanted to do it again.”
Campbell had six catches for 219 yards and two scores. He also had a hand on defense with his interception at the Hornets’ 9 on the Cardinals’ next-to-last possession.
Verdigris ended its season at 10-2.
The Hornets had a negative 15 yards in the rushing totals in the first half, but much of that was due to a snap out of the shotgun that sailed over Puckett’s head on a second-and-four from the Verdigris 17 as the Hornets were threatening to go in front, tied at 7 at that point. The ball was recovered by the Cardinals’ Tanner Boles at the Verdigris 45, setting up Hanslovan’s 47-yard burst on fourth-and-2.
But in the end, Hilldale overcame adversity, and doubters.
“We’ve fought from behind and we’ve been there before this year. They just fought back again,” Hornets’ coach Chad Kirkhart said. “Nobody respects these guys. Everybody’s surprised we’re even in the playoffs and here we are in the third round.”