WACO — The Midlothian Heritage defense returned two turnovers for touchdowns to take a 26-14 victory over the Navasota Rattlers in the Class 4A Division I area playoffs at Waco Midway’s Panther Stadium.
Jay Wilkerson got Heritage (8-4) on the scoreboard midway through the third quarter with a 67-yard interception return, and the Jaguars’ Konner Jones returned a fumble 45 yards for another touchdown to clinch the victory with 2 minutes, 40 seconds remaining.
“We just had a few plays go against us tonight,” Navasota coach Casey Dacus said. “You can’t give a team like that 14 points on turnovers. When you do that, you are not going to win, and tonight that was too much for us to overcome.”
The Rattlers (7-5) controlled the clock and for the most part the line of scrimmage but couldn’t convert a couple of key fourth-down plays and had two drops that kept them from extending a 7-0 first-quarter lead.
On the Rattlers’ opening possession, DJ Randle scored on a 9-yard run on fourth-and-1 to cap a 41-yard drive. Navasota’s defense set up the score by pushing back Heritage to its 12-yard line after the Jaguars opened the possession on their 19.
It was the only points of the first half as Heritage couldn’t convert a fourth-and-1 inside the Rattler 30 thanks to a key tackle by Jaquarian Williams, and the Rattlers missed by inches on a fourth-and-3 pass to Aaron Nichols and fell short late in the half on a fourth-and-3 at the Jaguar 9. Wilkerson saved the Jaguars seven points on the last drive, catching Randle at the 9 after he had broke free earlier in the possession for a 52-yard run.
“The reason we did that was the wind was blowing about 20 mph and we struggled in pregame kicking that way,” Dacus said of deciding to skip the field goal attempt from the 9. “So we just felt like in that situation 10 points wasn’t going to win it, and we were pretty confident. We had a couple of kids come over to the side, one was the running back, who said, Coach, I can get 5 yards, so when a kid comes over and tells you that, you’ve got to stand up for him and you have to believe in him. In hindsight was that a great call? We probably should have done something a little bit different, but we are trying to set up a culture and a belief in our kids and what we are playing for, and it just didn’t work out that time.”
The Rattlers had another chance to build a two-score lead when they took the second-half kickoff and drove 27 yards in five plays, but Wilkerson, who will play at Hawaii next season, intercepted a pass at his own 33 and returned it down the Heritage sideline for a touchdown. The Jaguars missed the extra point, allowing the Rattlers to keep the lead until Heritage’s next possession when Cullen Stone broke free at the line and ran 50 yards up the middle for a touchdown. The play accounted for nearly one-third of the Jaguars’ total offense.
“Our defense was phenomenal, has been all year long,” Dacus said. “If you would have told me we’d hold them to 12 points [offensively] tonight, I’d say we are going to win and had a good feeling about it. Can’t fault those guys. They played their guts out all year, and I wish we could have just got them a few more points.”
The Rattlers got seven more points and a one-point lead early in the fourth quarter when Zach Dyer found Tavarus Baker in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown pass.
The Jaguars responded with their only long drive of the night, going 65 yards in 12 plays. Stone scored on a 2-yard run with 2:40 remaining, but the key play came on a 12-yard catch in tight quarters by Haydon Wiginton on a fourth-and-4.
The Rattlers had their opportunities to score but two dropped passes by receivers who had got free behind the Jaguar secondary took the wind out of the Rattlers’ sails. Dyer then got hit by D’Angelo Freeman while scrambling, and Jones picked up the loose ball with nothing but open field in front of him.
The Rattler offense was hampered in the final quarter by the loss of Randle, who was injured on their second scoring drive and never returned. Randle had 145 yards rushing on 25 carries. He outgained the Jaguar rushers by 20 yards.
“He’s a special player, probably a lot faster than people realize,” Dacus said. “He’s been banged up all year long, missed three or four games in district, and he came back last week and ran really well. I think it’s just been the wear and tear of a long season, and he’s just had a tough time bouncing back. I’m thankful he’s just a junior.”
The Rattlers, who lost 49-9 to Heritage in the playoffs last season, doubled the Jags in first downs and had nearly 150 yards more of offense.
“Last year when we played them, we weren’t quite ready for that stage if you will,” Dacus said. “Last year we played those guys, they just manhandled us up front honestly on both sides of the ball. We kind of circled this opportunity to play a team like Heritage that is physical and big and likes to run the ball, so I was extremely proud of the way we competed and the way we ran the ball.”
Linebacker Denerick Henderson and defensive back Ja’Eric Beasley, both seniors, played particularly well on defense for the Rattlers, who held Heritage to 176 total yards.