BEAUMONT - El Campo's three-headed rushing attack has grabbed the headlines all season long, but it was the defense who extended the Ricebirds' season one more game.
On fourth and three from the Ricebirds' 28-yard line, Carthage quarterback Blake Bogenschutz took the shotgun snap and ran straight forward where a wall of El Campo defenders met him. Silence fell upon Provost Umphrey Stadium as everybody waited for the official measurement.
"It was nerve wracking," senior Cole Hunt said. "I was looking straight down the line and once I realized where it was, it's an indescribale feeling. The best feeling in the world."
When the head referee signaled that Bogenschutz had come up inches short, everyone wearing the El Campo red and white was celebrating because for the first time since 1967 the Ricebirds will play for a state championship.
"We have a tough bunch of kids out here," El Campo head coach Bob Gillis said. "We had a lot of things go wrong in the second half, but we hung in there. We talked to the kids and they believed. I can't say enough about these guys."
El Campo (14-0) pulled off the comeback in miraculous fashion, scoring 15 points in the final three and a half minutes to overcome a 25-14 deficit.
"We showed our heart today," senior quarterback Bryce Brandl said. "We were out manned, out-sized and we pulled together as a team, like we've had all year and found a way to win."
Brandl scored both touchdowns for El Campo in the final minutes, including a 7 yard run that made the score 25-21 before Montray Johnson ran in for the two point conversion.
That's when the ball began to bounce in the Ricebirds' favor.
Two plays into the ensuing drive, Bogenschutz tried to catch the Ricebirds' defense off guard with a quick snap, but fumbled the snap. He managed to recover and give it to running back Tevin Pipkin, but Pipkin never gained full control of the ball and fumbled it inside his own 20 yard line, where El Campo recovered the loose ball.
"We could've easily gave up and most teams do when they're down 10 points with six minutes left," Hunt said. "But we're never going to give up."
The drama was far from over, though. Carthage, led by Texas A&M commit Isaiah Golden, kept the Ricebirds out of the end zone on the first three plays. However, on fourth and goal from the two yard line, Brandl dove into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
Carthage managed to move the ball quickly and efficiently in four plays to El Campo's 28 yard line. But on fourth and goal, the Ricebirds' defense held strong and punched their ticket to Arlington for next week's state championship game.
After entering halftime down 17-14, thanks in part to a 33 yard field goal attempt by Alex Montes that was wide right in the first quarter, the Ricebirds gave Carthage an even bigger lead with two fumbles, an interception and a punt on their first four possessions of the second half. Those miscues gave Carthage a 25-14 lead that, until late in the fourth quarter, seemed insurmountable.
"I made mistakes, but what we fought back hard," senior Montray Johnson, who fumbled both times in the second half, said. "My teammates helped me keep my head up. They kept me motivated. That's Ricebirds' pride."
What made it seem insurmountable was how everything went in Carthage's favor, including one drive in the third quarter when the score was still 17-14.
Facing fourth and 10 from midfield, the Bulldogs went for the first down and it appeared Hunt had Bogenschutz wrapped up for the sack. Somehow, though, Bogenschutz got the ball away and, after bouncing off a lineman, fell into the hands of Pipkin for the first down.
Carthage finished the long drive on the first play of the fourth quarter when Golden scored on a 5 yard dive, giving the Bulldogs the 25-14 lead and all of the momentum.
"We play four quarters," Brandl said. "The fourth quarter is our quarter. We proved it tonight."
The Bulldogs (11-3) were able to move the ball throughout the game, racking up over 250 yards of total offense. They began to rack up the yards on the game's first possession when Carthage drove down the field and scored the game's first points on a 16 yard completion from Bogenschutz to Terian Goree. However, El Campo showed this wouldn't be an easy game, scoring three plays later on a 12-yard Brandl run.
Brandl finished the night with 21 carries for 105 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed five passes for 54 yards and an interception. Senior Montray Johnson also found the end zone once on a 1 yard run early in the second quarter that gave El Campo a 14-7 lead.
"Today we did a few different things with formations and such," Gillis said.
El Campo, the lone unbeaten team left in Class 3A, will face Stephenville next Friday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington for the Class 3A, Division I state championship. Kick off is at 7:30 p.m.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd get to play in Cowboy Stadium," Brandl said. "Everybody did what they had to do to win. It was great."