Bryan measured its defensive intensity by the pound.
In the second half, the Vikings pounded Willis, fighting off a Wildkats’ rally to take a 38-24 victory Friday at Merrill Green Stadium.
“Coach [Bret] Page challenged us at halftime,” said linebacker Jordan Driver of his defensive coordinator after Vikings’ resurgence from a 17-14 halftime deficit. “It was mainly execution. We were giving them plays that they shouldn’t have had in in the first place. We said that we’re better than what we’re showing, and we need to show what we can do.”
Bryan’s hit and miss offensive attack was good when it was most needed, but the relentless defense pressured quarterback Mark Richardson, whose clutch play, with 182 first half yards led the Wildkats to the halftime edge. In the second half, he passed for 66 yards and lost four yards rushing.
Bryan locked up the victory with a crunching hit on fourth down from safety Garrett Dohnalik and a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown runs from senior Jarvis Lister.
Lister also came back to haul in a key pass at midfield on Bryan’s go-ahead drive after Willis had knotted the game, 24-24.
“It was huge,” Bryan coach Ross Rogers said of the play. “They brought the defensive rush from [B.J. Ross’] left side, so he couldn’t dump it, and he held on to it and got out there and scrambled. He got it out to Jarvis and we were able to take it in and score pretty quickly. It kind of broke their will.”
A play later, Hunter Batten shot into the secondary for a 41-yard gain and Lister followed good initial blocking, then fought his way across the goal line with 4:01 left.
Dillon Albright’s interception closed out the second-half defensive effort on a night where a pair of Bryan defenders had touchdowns in the game, although one came on a special teams play.
Bryan, which moved to 4-3 with a 3-1 record in 18-5A, will play at Caney Creek next Friday. Willis (3-4, 1-3) remains in contention for a playoff spot despite the loss.
The Vikings forced an early second-half Willis punt that was deflected into the hands of defensive end Kesean Jefferson, who ran in 23 yards to give the Vikings the lead, 21-17.
“I grabbed it and I thought I was about to get hit,” said Jefferson, a 5-11, 265-pound senior. “There was no way I was not going to score.”
He said it was all part of an attitude adjustment at halftime.
“We came out with more intensity,” Jefferson said. “We came out as a more aggressive team and we stopped jumping offsides. We had a tempo that we kept going the whole second half.”
Bryan had limited touches (54 Willis plays, 19 for Bryan) in the first half, which was both good and bad. The Vikings fumbled on their first play, which set up a field goal by Willis’ Baldo Delaguila. Their second play went for a touchdown, when Ross’ pass was behind Joe Hedge, but close enough that Hedge spun around, caught the throw and completed the 72-yard score.
Bryan built a 14-3 edge when Driver recovered a Mark Richardson fumble and raced 72 yards for a touchdown.
“It was kind of surprising,” Driver said. “The ball just popped out after I hit their receiver. I pushed the receiver at the right time. The receiver hit the quarterback and it just popped out. In the first quarter, we didn’t get a fumble, so I decided to pick it up and run. Something good would happen. I felt him coming, and I was trying to kick it in, but at that point, I was winded.”
He took some minor contact from behind, but Driver ran into the end zone.
“I’ve always cried and complained,” Rogers said. “Over my years, I’ve never have had a lot of punt blocks for touchdowns or interceptions for touchdowns. Tonight we get two of those. That was great. The defensive kids — that’s where most of our experience is — they stood up a played.”
Willis rallied with a tackle-breaking 25-yard run from Darius Reece to the 2, where he followed good blocking two plays later to punch it in the touchdown.
The Wildkats’ sideline tackle of Tyler Slaydon on a fake punt gave Willis the ball at their 44. Effective at drawing the Vikings off with a hard count, Richardson did it again on what proved to be a scoring play. As Bryan defensive linemen checked up on the play, Richardson delivered a pass across the middle to Ke’eldrick Holiday. Holiday appeared well covered, but emerged with the ball on a 61-yard scoring pass and Willis carried a 17-14 lead into the locker room at halftime.