in Football

After disappointing season-opening loss to Merkel in Dublin, Class 3A, DII Cubs hope to give Clifton a reason to celebrate Homecoming against Rio Vista Friday

Armed with a strong and experienced senior class hungry to win, the Class 3A, Division II Clifton Cubs stumbled out of the gate with a disappointing 26-14 loss to the Merkel Badgers in their non-district matchup last Friday played at a neutral site at Dublin’s Bob & Norma Cervetto Stadium.

After the slow start through three quarters in the season opener, the Cubs played much better in the fourth quarter to get back into the game.

“Merkel out played us in the first half on both sides of the ball,” Clifton football head coach Brent Finney said. “We have to find a way to come out and start fast and play with more energy and purpose.”

This week, Clifton celebrates an early homecoming by hosting the Class 2A, Division I Rio Vista Eagles at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Cub Stadium. Picked by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine to finish fifth in District 7-2A, DI behind district favorite Cayuga and 24th-ranked Axtell, Rio Vista slipped past the Cubs, 26-24, last season. The Eagles opened the 2023 season with a 40-13 loss to the Class 2A, DII Dawson Bulldogs.

“Rio Vista is very similar to Merkel on both sides of the ball,” Finney said. “We have to do a better job in coverage and tackling in space. Offensively, we have to clean up our blocking assignments and our penalties, especially the pre-snap penalties.”

Last season, Clifton knocked off Merkel, 20-12, in the first meeting between the two schools for the season opener. In many ways, the Cubs took on a team that mirrors them coming into the season. As 2022 bi-district finalists from a 3-8 campaign, the Badgers have seven offensive and seven defensive starters returning.

Despite a wealth of experience back, Merkel has been picked to finish fifth in District 5-3A, DII behind 13th-ranked Comanche and 16th-ranked Jacksboro, as well as Eastland and Millsap. Led by all-around athlete Maddox O’Malley in the spread offense, the Badgers produced a balanced attack on their way to 383 yards of total offense.

On the other hand, the Cubs rolled up 309 yards on the ground, but half of that total came on three big plays, the passing game never took off, and penalties played a role in stalling potential drives. Junior Brody Baggett led Clifton with 100 yards rushing on only five carries, finally getting the Cubs on the scoreboard with an electrifying 62-yard run in the fourth quarter.

“Offensively, we moved the ball consistently,” Finney said. “But had way too many penalties that ended up stalling drives. We had an interception in the endzone that negated another drive. We started the second half with a fumble after an initial first down.

“Bottom line, we had too many self-inflicted mistakes, even though we rushed for over 300 yards.”

Senior fullback Riley Finney finished with 73 yards on six attempts, followed by junior quarterback Joaquin De La Hoya with 46 yards and senior running back Parker Tunnell with 45 yards and a score.

Although the Cub defense slowed down the Merkel running game at times, the Badgers hurt Clifton through the air early and ended up moving the ball effectively with the run and the pass, as O’Malley completed 10 of 17 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 88 yards and two more scores.

As a two-way player lining up at linebacker, Finney led Clifton with 10 tackles, followed by junior linebacker James Liardon with eight, senior defensive back Andres Devora with seven, as well as senior Ervin Rodriguez and Baggett with six each.

But early in the game, Merkel converted a third down and 30 yards-to-go situation from deep in their own territory, igniting a scoring drive. Throughout the game, surrendering big plays on third down broke Clifton’s back. But the Cubs rallied in the fourth quarter to have a chance to pull out the win.

“Defensively, we have to be able to get off the field when we get opponents in third and long situations,” Finney said. “We were not able to do that consistently Friday, and that allowed them too many extra chances.

“But I am proud of these kids for never quitting and continuing to fight till the end of the game. They are ready to get back to work Monday and have a great week of practice.”


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