Class 6A Championship: Greenwood Outlasts Pine Bluff 51-44

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In a game with a 51-44 final score, it would seem the day completely belonged to the offenses. But it was a stretch of defense by Greenwood for nearly the entire second quarter and almost half of the third that ultimately proved the difference in the Bulldogs winning their 38th straight game, third straight state title and a first championship in Class 6A over Pine Bluff Saturday afternoon at War Memorial Stadium.

Greenwood outscored Pine Bluff 23-0 over that stretch for a 37-28 lead with 9:23 left in the third quarter. Behind the gritty senior quarterback Rickey Clement, however, the Zebras wouldn’t go away and tied the game at 37 with 5:30 left in third quarter.

But the bugaboo for Pine Bluff’s defense all day — taking bad angles and failing to tackle in the secondary — reared its head again over the next five minutes to allow Greenwood to spurt back out to a 14-point lead, 51-37.

Pine Bluff found its offense one last time, but the Greenwood defense, by taking away the running of fast Zebra tailback Walter Ashley and playing its safeties deep, forced the Zebras to eat up 8:02 of the clock to cut the lead back to seven with 4:28 to go, and the Zebras never got the ball back.

Pine Bluff vs Greenwood

Greenwood senior RB Hoyt Smith looks for an opening.
Photo by Rhonda Sharp. © 2012

Greenwood wrapped the game up by converting a fourth-and-2 feet from its 34-yard line with 2:22 to play. Greenwood head coach Rick Jones first sent out the punt team, called time out and then let his offense and fullback Saul Palmer make the first down over left tackle. With the Zebras down to one time out, the game was essentially over, but Most Valuable Player Drew Morgan left no doubt by breaking open on a long run to the Zebras 18 before sliding down. All Greenwood needed were two more kneel-downs.

Jones said his decision not to punt, after he thought about it, was an easy one. “If you can’t make two feet, you shouldn’t go out to get the trophy,” the veteran coach said.

Greenwood (14-0) is used to its players marching out to the center of War Memorial Stadium to claim a wooden plaque signifying a state title. Saturday’s championship was the program’s seventh since 2000, the last six under Jones. This one was made special after the Arkansas Activities Association reclassified Greenwood at 6A for 2012-13 and placed them with mostly 7A teams in the 7A/6A-Central conference. Greenwood, the 14th largest of 16 6A schools, went through a schedule unscathed against such regular top-level powerhouses as Conway and Fort Smith Southside.

Morgan, asked what the secret to the Bulldogs success was, said “Two words: Rick Jones.”

Jones could point toward Morgan for being the key in Greenwood winning its first 6A crown. The 6-foot, 180-pound senior, who is committed to sign in February with Arkansas State, rushed for two touchdowns and caught another for a score. He had 83 yards rushing, 87 yards receiving and 55 yards on three kick returns, including a 38-yarder after Pine Bluff had tied the game at 37. From safety or linebacker on defense, depending on Pine Bluff’s offensive package, Morgan was second in tackles for the Bulldogs with nine, including seven unassisted stops. He played nearly every snap and most of the 48 minutes, except for a short first-quarter stretch where he had to come out after dislocating his hip. His only mistake was a fumbled kickoff (the replay showed he may have already been down when he lost possession) that set up Pine Bluff’s tying field goal in the third quarter.

“I’m numb right now,” a completely spent Morgan said near midfield after receiving his MVP award. “I can’t feel anything except my heart and my head.”

Jabe Burgess, the Greenwood quarterback, connected on 14 of 22 passes for 396 yards. But he also had two interceptions that the Zebras converted into 14 points in the game’s first 13 minutes. In fact, Burgess saw his first pass of the game glance high off a receiver’s hands and into the arms of Rakeem Leverett, who set up a two-play 31-yard Zebra scoring drive in the game’s first 49 seconds.

However, Greenwood regularly answered Pine Bluff when it didn’t turn the ball over, and the Zebras never seemed in control of the game, even when they were ahead 28-14 at one point.

“We haven’t had guys open on us all year like that,” lamented Zebras Coach Bobby Bolding, who guided the Zebras to a runner-up finish to El Dorado in 2009. “It wasn’t any routes we haven’t seen all season. They did a good job attacking our personnel.”

Pine Bluff had allowed just 35 total points in its last eight games and had two shutouts in three playoff games, including a  24-0 blanking of Jonesboro last week. But the Zebras appeared unfamiliar with basic pass routes that went for huge games, and Bolding said he spent the entire game trying to get his defense settled down.

One major turning point came after the Zebras had taken a 28-14 lead. Greenwood recovered its a muffed kickoff at its 11 and then lost 2 yards on a first-down fumble and recovery by Burgess. On the next snap, Burgess threw over the middle to Austin Harris, who was running a short post slant. Two missed tackles allowed Harris to break free for a 91-yard scoring play, the second longest scoring pass in a state final.

Pine Bluff (12-2) appeared to have an early edge at receiver with its speed, as wideouts consistently ran behind Greenwood defensive backs. Clement settled down after a couple of overthrows to find Paris Mack for a 37-yard score and Tyrone Payne for a 9-yard on a fade route. Walter Ashley scored on runs of 4 and 11 yards as the Zebras jumped to the 28-14 lead just one play into the second quarter.

But the Bulldogs gained a handle on Ashley for the rest of the game and did a better job on the deep throws. Clement kept the Zebras in it with his keepers, scrambles and at times pin-point accuracy on sideline routes.

Clement burst through the Bulldogs for a 39-yard run to end the Zebras mid-game scoring drought. Greenwood survived Morgan’s kickoff fumble by holding the Zebras to Austin McGehee’s 30-yard field goal that evened the game at 37 with 5:30 left in the third quarter. Clement wrapped up the Zebras’ scoring on the 8-minute fourth-quarter drive with a 10-yard bullet to a diving Devarius Rice. Pine Bluff converted two fourth-downs on the drive.

The teams combined for 921 total yards. Greenwood had 528. Clement’s 143 rushing yards were most of the Zebras’ 249 yards on the ground, and Clement was 13 of 26 for 144 yards and one interception.

And that pick was by the all-everything Morgan on a deep pass in the third quarter.

“Drew’s a player and he loves the big stage,” Jones said of his senior, who repeated as the MVP in a title game. “We used him at running back, receiver, safety, linebacker. He did everything he could  do to win the game.”

“If it’s the first Saturday in December and he’s playing football. He’s pretty doggone good … I think he can play anywhere in the country. He’s one of the best players I’ve ever coached.”

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