In a battle of undefeated teams, the Bulldogs, as they have routinely done the past four years, came through with a resounding win on a big stage, defeating Jackson, 26-17, in front of 5,000 fans on homecoming night at Sikeston Public Schools Stadium.
The Bulldogs overcame a 9-7 halftime deficit and essentially dominated the second half against Jackson, outscoring them 19-0 until the Indians scored with one second remaining in the game.
The game carried a lot of weight for both teams. With the victory, Sikeston clinched at least a share of the SEMO Conference championship for the third time in four years. Also, the Bulldogs (6-0, 3-0 SEMO) improved their chances of getting the top seed in district play by defeating the Class 5 Indians.
"It's a big win for a lot of reasons," Sikeston coach Kent Gibbs said. "And to be able to do that in front of all the people from both communities, particularly our home crowd and the way we did it -- nothing fancy, we just bowed our neck up front, we blocked and we took it to them a little bit."
After gaining just 119 yards in the first half, the Bulldog offense took over in the second half with 262 yards.
Leading the charge was senior quarterback Kyland Gross and junior running back Chris Word.
Gross was his usual dominant self, rushing for 133 yards on 15 carries with a pair of scores.
But it was Word who busted out with the biggest game of his career, rushing for 199 yards on 28 carries with two touchdowns. He had 170 yards on 21 carries in the second half alone.
Both Word and Gross combined for 332 of Sikeston's 344 rushing yards.
"If we get to the point where they're not just keying on Kyland, it just makes us that much better," Gibbs said. "He's a difference-maker and he will continue to be one, but what happened tonight was some other guys step up. Chris is one of the hardest workers we've got -- he does a lot of things right in practice. Tonight he got good blocking and made good cuts and he ran hard and you see the results."
But it wasn't just the Bulldog offense that stole the glory. Once again, Sikeston's defense stepped up against a hyped-up Jackson offense that was averaging 39 points and over 450 yards of offense per game.
The Indians only managed 274 yards of offense, with 92 of it coming in the final 1:03 of the game.
"Their defense is good," first-year Jackson coach Brent Eckley said of the Bulldogs. "And it's not just bodies, they are well-coached. Their scheme is good. They're pretty multiple in what they do. They got in and out of some different fronts on different coverages and that kept us out of a rhythm a little bit. They've got really good athletes. If we were going to run a 40, I've got one kid that can compete with their top 10. We've got some quick kids, but they're really fast."
The game opened with a quick three-and-out by the Bulldogs, setting up the Indians with good field position at their own 48.
Jackson moved the ball into the red zone, but Sikeston's defense stiffened up and forced a turnover on downs.
Sikeston responded with the first score of the game, marching 70 yards on eight plays capped by an 18-yard touchdown run by Gross where he used a little improvisation -- when he turned to hand the ball off to a running back that wasn't there, Gross took off up the middle towards the end zone untouched.
Freshman Nathan Hampton's extra point gave the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead with 2:59 left in the first quarter.
After recovering a fumble deep in Bulldog territory, Gross was pressured into throwing an interception to Jackson's Dante Vandeven, who returned it 18 yards to the Bulldog 20.
The Indians scored in three plays on a 4-yard run by Ty Selsor. The extra point snap was botched, leaving the Bulldogs with a 7-6 lead with 8:26 left in the second quarter.
After forcing a Sikeston punt, Jackson took over at its own 20 with 4:03 left in the half. The Indians used 14 plays to march into Bulldog territory where they settled for an Adam Brown 30-yard field goal as time expired to take a 9-7 lead into halftime.
The Bulldogs opened the second half by successfully recovering an onside kick. A fumble on the first play gave the ball back to Jackson, but that momentum was short-lived. Two plays later, Aundrea Golden intercepted Selsor's pass and returned it 15 yards to the Jackson 30.
The Bulldogs scored in four plays with Word punching it in from the 1-yard line to reclaim the lead for good.
"It just took us until the second half for us to regroup," Word said. "Mentally we were not focused in the first half. Coach got on to us and told us to get ready. We came together and told each other we're going to get it done. We were motivated to win. We were looking on semoball and 80 percent of everybody said we were going to lose. We wanted to show everybody who we are."
Leading 13-9, the Bulldogs stopped the Indians on downs and took possession at their own 33.
Gross capped a 13 play, 67-yard drive with a 5-yard run to lead 19-9 with 3:15 left in the third quarter.
During the drive, Gross bailed the Bulldogs out with clutch 3rd-and-long conversions, using his speed to run past the Indian defenders.
"We were in position a couple times, and we'd have two guys that he's making miss at the same time," Eckley said of Gross. "He's as good as I can remember a kid at quarterback. We really struggled with him. He's extremely quick and strong on contact. He did a good job of running through tackles."
On Jackson's ensuing possession, Gross intercepted a Selsor pass at the Sikeston 24.
That set up another long drive as the Bulldogs were able to eat up clock, eventually scoring on a 1-yard run by Word to finish off a 12-play, 76-yard drive.
Hampton's extra point extended the lead to 26-9 with 7:45 left in the game.
The Bulldogs then forced Jackson's only punt of the night, a 62-yarder to the Sikeston 10.
Word had 80 yards rushing on the final drive until fumbling at the 8-yard line with 1:03 left in the game.
"He was upset with himself that he fumbled the ball there at the end, but I told him 'get your head up and be proud of yourself because I rode you in the third and fourth quarter and you took it like a Triple Crown winner and did everything we asked. You've got to be pleased with how it turned out,'" Gibbs said of Word.
Jackson took advantage, scoring in five plays on an 18-yard touchdown reception by Skyler Steele from Vandeven with one second remaining in the game. The duo then hooked up for the two-point conversion to reach the final margin.
Jackson was limited to 112 yards rushing, the highest mark against the Bulldogs this year by an opponent. Colten Proffer led the way with 65 yards on 16 carries.
Selsor threw for 144 yards, completing 11-of-24 passes with two interceptions.
The Indians, which had dominated its first three opponents until last week's thrilling 29-26 victory over Cape Central, fall to 5-1 on the season and 3-1 in conference play.
The Bulldogs can clinch the conference outright with a win at Cape Central next week.
"Their kids play with a lot of confidence, as they should," Eckley said of Sikeston. "Our kids competed right there with them, but we just didn't have quite as many bullets in the gun as they did, as far as players go. It's a good team, a physical team, a fast team. I think they're improving along the way. Anytime you can run the ball like they can run it, both on the perimeter as well as inside, and the quarterback being able to run as well, they'll be dangerous for teams down the stretch."
S -- Kyland Gross 18 run (Nathan Hampton kick), 2:59
J -- Ty Selsor 4 run (run failed), 8:26
J -- Adam Brown 30 field goal, 0:00
S -- Chris Word 1 run (kick failed), 10:05
S -- Gross 5 run (pass failed), 3:15
S -- Word 1 run (Hampton kick), 7:45
J -- Skyler Steele 18 pass from Dante Vandeven (Steele pass from Vandeven), 0:01
Jackson -- Colten Proffer 16-65, Ty Selsor 13-29, Dante Vandeven 4-10, Brennan Wright 1-8, Lowgn Wren 2-0. Sikeston -- Chris Word 28-199, Kyland Gross 15-133, Reese Porter 6-19, Markeith Bratcher 1-7, Jeterrence Harris 1-1, Nick Nichols 1-(-2), Team 2-(-13).
Jackson -- Ty Selsor 11-24-2 144, Dante Vandeven 1-1-0 18. Sikeston -- Kyland Gross 5-8-1 37.
Jackson -- Brennan Wright 2-61, Lowgn Wren 5-46, Skyler Steele 3-39, Colten Proffer 1-8, Hunter Schuette 1-8. Sikeston -- Spenser Clark 2-26, Markeith Bratcher 1-10, Jeterrence Harris 1-4, Reese Porter 1-(-3).