Bulldogs hit the ground running

Steve Bubalo/PrepsKC

By Steve Bubalo PrepsKC Senior Writer
Posted: November 6, 2015 - 11:37 PM

If Odessa were to lay out exactly how they wanted its Class 3 district championship game against rival Oak Grove to begin Friday night, they couldn’t have written a better script than what actually happened.

In fact, it seems as if offensive coordinator Benny Palmer had already seen the future.

“Benny and I had talked earlier in the week about taking the opening kick and he said if we got it we were going to score on our first series,” Odessa head coach Mark Thomas said. “Then, if the defense could get a stop after that we were going to score again and get up 14-0 and make them chase us.”

Turns out, that was exactly what happened and the Bulldogs never looked back, advancing to the state quarterfinal game with a 28-10 victory.

It all started with the coin toss, which the Bulldogs usually defer if given the option, but on this night they wanted the ball first and a chance to make a statement.

It didn’t take long to make that statement, as senior running back Kobe Hardin took the first play of the game 61 yards for a score and a 7-0 lead.

“I was messing around with Coach Thomas a couple of weeks ago and told him I was just going to take it to the house the first play of the game,” Hardin said. “He told me his senior year he did that three times, so that challenged me. That was pretty cool.”

The defense would do their part on Oak Grove’s first drive of the game, forcing a three-and-out - aided by three false start penalties by the Panthers - to get the ball back to the offense.

The Bulldog offense didn’t strike as quick on their next drive, going 53 yards in 10 plays as a 17-yard touchdown pass from Ty Wagner to Josiah Bennett capped the drive to make it 14-0, just as Palmer had predicted.

“They did a good job getting out early,” Oak Grove head coach Pat Richard said. “That run to start the game was huge. And then we had three or four penalties on our first drive. That kind of set the precedent for the rest of the night.”

Later in the second quarter, after a poor punt by Oak Grove started Odessa’s drive on the Panther 28, Hardin was back in the end zone just five plays later on an 11-yard run for a 21-0 lead.

With a comfortable lead in hand, the Odessa defense continued to make life difficult on the Panther offense. With the Bulldogs doing a good job containing the run game, and the Panthers shooting themselves in the foot on occasion with penalties, Oak Grove was put in second- and third-and-long far too often.

And for an offense that revolves around the running game, that makes life difficult.

“We’d have a great play and then a penalty. We’d have a good drive going and get a penalty,” Richard said. “This offense isn’t built for second-and-20.”

Helping bottle up the run game was Odessa defensive lineman Jase Hollingsworth, who seemed to have his name called on nearly every play for credit on a tackle.

“I came out and realized this could be my last game as a junior and I didn’t want that. I just had to make my reads and play sound,” he said. “We had to keep them boxed in and not let them outside. We had to hit them and not arm tackle them.”

After a scoreless third quarter, the Panthers finally got in the end zone on a 5-yard run from Landon Carrier to make it 21-10.

The Panthers caught the Bulldogs a little off guard with an onside kick following the score and would recover with 7 minutes, 45 seconds left in the game.

But with the Panthers driving inside the Odessa 30, junior Luke Tripp stripped Oak Grove quarterback Chance Alexander as he reared back to throw and recovered the fumble.

“They were picking up a lot of momentum,” Hollingsworth said. “We knew we had to keep calm. We knew he (Tripp) would make a big play. He stepped up when he needed to.”

The icing on the win came three plays later when Hardin took the ball on a sweep play to the right, found some room, and then cut all the way back to the left side of the field and outran the defense for a 63-yard score.

In his first season playing high school football, Hardin has been a huge addition for the Bulldogs, and he finished Friday night with 21 carries for 254 yards.

Afterward, Hardin described the win as “an amazing feeling”, and had some blunt words about his offensive line.

“Our O-line is the best in the state in Class 3,” he said. “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Odessa (11-1) will now try and do what the Panthers did last year on their way to a state title, and that’s defeat juggernaut and top-ranked Maryville next Friday night.

Hardin said he expects another hard-fought battle and the game plan won’t change.

“We have a game plan. We’re going to try and run it down their throat,” he said. “It’s going to be a dog fight, I guarantee it.”