ARLINGTON — The Highland Park defense allowed more than 500 yards and yielded several big plays. But when it mattered most, that same defense — led by Ryan Coxe — possibly saved the season for the Scots.
HP forced a late turnover, then made a fourth-down stop in crunch time to preserve a 37-35 win over Mansfield Lake Ridge in a thrilling Class 5A Division I Region II final on Friday at AT&T Stadium.
The thrilling victory puts the Scots (13-1) back in the state semifinals, where they will face either Denton Ryan or Lubbock Coronado at 9 p.m. Dec. 15 on the same field.
“It was one of those games where it was going to take a lot of guts,” said HP head coach Randy Allen, whose team extended its winning streak to 13 games. “I’m really proud of our football team and the strong will they have to win. The guys made plays when we had to.”
For a team that dominated most of its contests during the past 10 weeks, Friday’s win came in unconventional fashion. The only second-half points for HP came via two Matteo Cordray field goals, including a 30-yarder with 7:59 remaining that turned out to be the game-winner.
And for the first time this season, John Stephen Jones didn’t throw a touchdown pass, although he did have two first-half rushing scores.
The Eagles (12-2) turned a 10-point deficit into a one-point lead at 35-34 on a 19-yard pass from Jason Bean to Malik Knowles late in the third quarter. That duo connected for 113 yards and three scores in the game.
After Cordray gave the Scots the lead, the Eagles drove quickly down the field before Marshall Ballard recovered a fumble after a completed pass at the Lake Ridge 29 with 6:30 left.
The ensuing 10-play drive ended with a punt, giving Lake Ridge the ball back deep in its own territory in the closing minutes. Coxe registered a sack on third-and-10 at the Lake Ridge 29. On the fourth-down snap, Coxe shoved a scrambling Bean out of bounds just shy of the first-down marker, and HP ran out the clock.
“When the game was on the line, they came through with the most important plays,” Allen said of the defense. “That last four-down stop, to knock him out of bounds before he got a first down, was unbelievable.”
Earlier, the Scots raced to an early 10-0 lead on a short Cordray field goal followed by a Coxe fumble recovery that set up a 1-yard scoring plunge by Jones.
From there, the two teams traded touchdowns for much of the first half. Bean hooked up with Knowles for a 13-yard score to cut the margin to 10-7.
Another 1-yard touchdown run by Jones gave the Scots a 17-7 advantage. Then Cartraven Walker’s 7-yard scamper again brought Lake Ridge within three.
HP capped its next two drives with rushing scores — a 7-yard effort from Conner Allen and a 35-yard run by Paxton Alexander. Lake Ridge answered with another Knowles scoring catch from 12 yards out.
The Eagles gained momentum with a 76-yard drive capped by a 3-yard run to the end zone by Dewone Jackson, trimming the HP lead to 31-28.
HP responded with an impressive 16-play drive that stalled inside the Lake Ridge 10, forcing the Scots to settle for another field goal.
Then Bean went to work again, finding Knowles on a 49-yard completion to set up a 19-yard scoring strike, giving the Eagles their only lead of the game.
Bean connected on 18 of 28 passes for 333 yards, including four completions of at least 35 yards. He also rushed for a team-high 73 yards. T.J. Graham caught three passes for 104 yards, and Deven Langston posted five receptions for 77 yards.
However, the Eagles committed three costly turnovers, including a fumble recovered by Cole Bohner on the first Lake Ridge snap after halftime.
Alexander finished with a game-high 122 yards rushing on 20 carries for HP despite nursing an ankle injury. Conner Allen added 69 yards on 16 attempts as the Scots relied heavily on the ground game — and Cordray’s right leg — in the second half.
“We just couldn’t find many windows to throw into. We also wanted to keep our defense off the field,” Randy Allen said. “I wanted touchdowns, but we got field position and we kicked field goals. You have to win some games the tough way.”