THE BIG PAYOFF

in Football

Never losing faith, the Clifton Cubs rally with 29 fourth quarter points to snap three-game losing streak against powerhouse Tenaha

CLIFTON – Playing against a fourth straight playoff-caliber opponent to wrap up the gauntlet of a non-district schedule, the Class 3A, Division II Clifton Cubs appeared on the brink of their first winless start to the season since 2016.

Not so fast.

Finally getting over the hump in a big way, the Cubs made an dramatic statement before opening District 13-3A, DII play with a thrilling 43-26 come-from-behind victory over the Class 2A, DII perennial powerhouse Tenaha Tigers Friday night at Cub Stadium.

Trailing 20-7 at halftime, senior running back Devin Byrd and sophomore Joe Taylor ran for two touchdowns as Clifton scored 29 fourth quarter points to not only win the game, but put an emphatic exclamation mark on the victory.

“I’m really proud of the fight the kids have shown, not just on Friday night but throughout the first four weeks of the season,” Clifton football head coach Chuck Caniford said. “We’ve played some very quality opponents, and they’ve never given up. Friday night was a great example of that. It would have been very easy for them to throw in the towel, down 20-7 at half. But they never lost their faith and kept fighting, and it paid off in a big way.”

When Tenaha junior running back Jeremy Patton scored on the first play from scrimmage, it looked like the beginning of a rough night for the Cubs. But despite trailing 20-7 at halftime, the Clifton defense came up with some important first half stops, then turned up the heat in the second half.

In fact, the defensive unit provided the turning point in the game with only 27 seconds remaining in the third quarter when Byrd forced a fumble on a pitch and sophomore Larrett Thomas scooped up the loose ball and sprinted 61 yards for the score to pull Clifton to within six.

Then on Tenaha’s next play from scrimmage, the Tigers fumbled the handoff and Cub junior Jacob Rogers fell on the loose ball at the Tenaha 25-yard line. Clifton capitalized once again on Byrd’s one-yard run untouched into the end zone.  Senior placekicker Jose Ramirez nailed the extra point to give the Cubs a 21-20 lead with 10:38 remaining in the game.

“We knew it would take some time to adjust to their speed,” Caniford said. “They were clearly the fastest team we have seen this year. Our defensive staff made some adjustments, and after that initial storm, our guys settled in and played great. They have some dynamic playmakers, and once we got going on defense, we did a very good job of shutting them down.”

But Tenaha refused to be done yet, responding with a resounding scoring drive, culminating with Patton’s 25-yard touchdown run with 8:25 left on the clock. But when the Tigers decided to go for the two-point conversion, they drew a motion penalty to push them back five yards before junior Will Simmons stopped the Tigers short on a quarterback keeper.

Defensively, Byrd led Clifton with 12 tackles, followed by junior Griffin Phillips with seven tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery, while Thomas and Simmons finished with six takedowns apiece.

Grinding it out on the ground and mixing in timely passes, the Cub offensive attack became unstoppable in the fourth quarter. With freshman quarterback Riley Finney at the helm, the Cubs answered with a scoring drive of their own to reclaim the lead they would never relinquish. After marching into the red zone, Finney connected with senior wide receiver Tyler Anderson on a 17-yard touchdown pass. Going for the two-point conversion, Finney rifled one to Simmons just across the goal line to give Clifton a 29-26 advantage with 4:06 remaining in the game.

“We felt really good even in the first half about how we were moving the ball on offense,” Caniford said. “We had just a few plays in the first half that killed drives, but found our groove in the second half. We felt like we could eventually wear them down, and that’s what we were able to do in the fourth quarter.”

Indeed, they were, and the Cubs were just getting started. But first, the Clifton defense came up with a big stop as Tenaha turned the ball over on downs at their own 31-yard line with 1:55 left on the clock. On the first play from scrimmage, Byrd turned the corner around the right side and outraced the Tigers for a 31-yard scoring scamper to give the Cubs a 10-point cushion.

Then on the ensuing kickoff, Ramirez perfectly placed a pooch kick on no-man’s land, and Cub sophomore Westen Urbanovsky recovered ball at the Teneha 39-yard line. On the next play, Taylor broke through up the middle and thundered 39 yards for the game-clinching score.

Taylor led Clifton with 101 yards rushing on 17 carries, followed by Finney with 65 yards and Byrd with 58 as the Cubs piled up 259 yards on the ground. Through the air, Finney completed seven of 10 passes for 99 yards, hooking up with junior Luis Rodriguez twice for 47 yards, and Anderson three times for 33.

“We talked all week about perspective and understanding that this is all part of the process of growing as a team,” Caniford said. “Obviously, it was great to end the non-district schedule with a win, but it was even more important that we played well against a good opponent.

Playing tough non-district schedules have paid off for Cubs in the past under Caniford’s watch. After winning their last non-district game, Clifton will carry the momentum of the dramatic win into their District 13-3A, DII opener against the Riesel Indians this Friday night at Cub Stadium.

“We feel good about where we are at,” Caniford said. “But we also understand that we have to continue to get better, and that everything we want will be earned on the field over the next seven weeks.”

Photos by DAVID HARDING

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