TAHLEQUAH — With a look of determination in his eyes, Jacob Cowherd delivered a bold statement to defensive line coach Lucious Selmon III.
“Trust me, coach; I got this,” he said.
Starting at the end position, Cowherd was one of the new faces on the Claremore defensive line that replaced four graduates from last season.
In 2018, he and most of the line played JV, helping the squad to a 5-1 record. The only loss came to Tahlequah, and Cowherd wanted to return the favor at the varsity level.
With the temperature dropping into the high 30s, the senior discovered revenge is best served cold.
Cowherd pounced on a fumble at the Tigers’ 12-yard line with 1:42 remaining to seal a 21-14 upset victory over previously unbeaten No. 3 Tahlequah at Northeastern State’s Doc Wadley Stadium on Friday night.
It was the Zebras’ fourth takeaway overall and second fumble recovery.
“I wanted so hard to ruin that for them,” Cowherd said. “I saw our linebackers and d-linemen going to hit the quarterback, and I knew I had to jump right on that ball to ruin that season.”
The win moved the Zebras (6-4, 5-2 District 5A-4) to third in the district standings. They will travel to McAlester next week for the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.
The Buffaloes defeated Bishop Kelley, 35-19, on Friday to finish second in District 5A-3.
Despite the loss, the Tigers (9-1, 6-1) had already locked up the district championship with a win over Memorial in Week 9.
“One of our goals was to rain on their parade,” said Claremore coach Jarrett Hurt, who sports a 2-2 record against Tahlequah. “Brad Gilbert and his staff, I tip my hat to them. He’s a classy Christian man, and he does a super job running this program. He turned it around and got a district title here for the first time since 1991.
“I’m happy for them and the success they had, but I’m really happy for our guys and the effort we put up against them.”
Two of the four turnovers came on interceptions in the first and fourth quarters with Tahlequah inside the Zebras’ 15-yard line, and another occurred on a fumble just past midfield at the Claremore 46 in the third.
Dylan Kedzior notched the first pick to keep the Tigers from scoring the first points of the game, and Conner Aaron’s pass hijacking of Simeon Armstrong on the second play of the fourth maintained Claremore’s 14-point advantage.
The momentous play came moments after Tahlequah’s Qua’shon Leathers returned a kickoff 70 yards to the Claremore 14.
“It was a change of momentum to come on our side (of the field), and it stopped them down in the red zone so they couldn’t have a chance to come back and tie it up,” Aaron said. “That pick helped us run down the clock and gave our offense an opportunity to drive the field. Coach (Kevin) Smith always gets on to us about causing turnovers because coach Hurt says turnovers win the games; we gotta have the most.
“Whoever has the most will win the game at the end of it, and that clearly showed tonight.”
Armstrong, who replaced starter Tate Christian in the second half, committed both Tahlequah fourth-quarter turnovers.
Christian, who threw for 94 yards and a score on 7-of-16 passing, left the game with a shoulder injury late in the second quarter after throwing a 16-yard touchdown pass that was negated by an illegal shift penalty.
The Tigers would go on to mishandle the snap on the ensuring field-goal attempt and finish the drive scoreless.
“Our defense played lights out,” Hurt said. “Of course, the turnovers were huge, and we stress that all the time.”
A major question mark facing the Zebras coming into the contest was their run defense.
Claremore had given up 1,548 yards rushing—309.6 yards per game— to opponents with winning records, but that trend came to an end on Friday.
The Zebras held the normally potent Tahlequah offense to only 220 yards total and 126 yards rushing.
Dae Dae Leathers led Tahlequah with 90 yards on 15 carries, though most of his output came on a 48-yard touchdown run with 9:28 remaining, bringing the score to 21-14.
Excluding the outlier, he managed only 3 yards per carry.
In addition to the four turnovers, the defense limited the Tigers’ third-down conversion efficiency to 40 percent, forcing five punts.
Cowherd said the defense’s mindset was the difference this time around.
“We wanted to go out there and beat Tahlequah,” Cowherd said. “After the Pryor game, (Tahlequah) called our d-line soft. They said they have the best o-line, and they were going to run all over us.
“We wanted to prove them wrong and go out there and smack them and show them who Claremore is.”
Complementing the defense were quarterback Charlie Murdock and running back DeShawn Kinnard.
Murdock completed 10 of 21 passes for 115 yards, tossing touchdowns to Brooks Sherl, Kedzior and Noah Smallwood on throws of 6, 22 and 29 yards, respectively.
The latter two helped the Zebras build a 21-7 lead in the third quarter.
Smallwood led all receivers with 52 yards on two receptions, while Sherl had two catches for 32 yards.
Kedzior caught three balls for 19 yards, though his first reception resulted in a 9-yard loss.
“I know they’ll go get a football, for sure,” Murdock said of his receiving corps. “They do it every day in practice. I’ll throw one that’s not on the money, and they’ll find a way to come down with it. They did a great job of tracking them, and the line did a great job of blocking.
“It was perfect.”
Filling in for Jace Hightower, who suffered a hip injury against Pryor, Kinnard rushed for 129 yards on 27 carries.
His highlight run came at the end of the first quarter when he spun out of tackles on a 50-yard dash to the Tahlequah 3.
Murdock connected with Sherl for a 6-yard touchdown shortly after, giving Claremore a 7-0 lead with 11:06 remaining in the first half.
“You look for chances like these whenever you get them,” Kinnard said. “You have to take full advantage of them, and that’s what I tried to do tonight.”
The Zebras outgained the Tigers, 255-220.
Claremore’s theme for the 2019 season is ‘Be the One’, and Hurt said it certainly felt good to be the one to end Tahlequah’s undefeated season.
A fitting end to the regular season for a historic group of seniors.
“It’s the seniors’ fourth year in-a-row to have a winning record, fourth year to beat Pryor and fourth year in-a-row to be in the playoffs,” Hurt said. “We’re not satisfied with that—those are some of our goals—but those aren’t all our goals.
“Our goal this year is to ‘Be the One’, and it’s out there in front of us right now; we still have that opportunity.”