After the Sealy Tigers allowed the North Forest Bulldogs to fight their way back from a halftime defecit of 14 points, many felt a creeping sense of familiarity. Throughout the season, the Tigers had lost a number of close games through blown leads or inability to score late. When the Bulldogs managed to fight their way back into the game in the second half, seemingly everyone was feeling the sense of nervousness that this would happen again. Everyone except for those on the sideline.
“Everyone kept saying it was all right and we weren’t worried about it and Coach came into the huddle and said we were going to win this game and we just said, ‘Yes sir, we are,’” said senior receiver Justin Eckhardt. “It was the bend-but-not-break mentality Coach [Shane] Mobley teaches us.”
The Tigers started the game strong with a touchdown on the opening drive of the game. After recovering a fumble on the kickoff, the offense was jumpstarted through the air as long catches by Eckhardt and Jared Kainer quickly put Sealy in Bulldogs territory.
After Eckhardt brought them inside the 10-yard line, he finished the job on a third-down touchdown catch on an out route to put the Tigers up 6-0.
The Tigers forced a three-and-out on North Forest’s first possession but gave the ball back to them on an interception that gave them the ball at midfield. The defense stayed strong and forced the Bulldogs to punt the ball.
North Forest had two more possessions in the first quarter both ending in punts, the last of which put Sealy at their own 18-yard line at the end of the first quarter. The defense was able to constantly get pass the opposing offensive line shutting down the running game and forcing them to resort to passing.
“Before the game Mobley told us that they had size on the line but if we get penetration then we would succeed and that’s what we did,” Eckhardt said. “The secondary really helped us out because we knew when to go man and zone and played both really well.”
The Tigers would continue their strong start with a touchdown on a run by junior Ivan Bolden who also ran in the two-point conversion to put the Tigers up 14-0.
North Forest managed to drive its way to the Sealy 38-yard line but went four-and-out after two deep pass attempts were batted down by Tyrek McNeese. The Tigers offensive line faltered on the last two possessions of the half stalling the offense heading into halftime.
North Forest made use of their halftime adjustments quickly scoring just two minutes into the third quarter. Several big runs put the Bulldogs inside Sealy’s 10-yard line where they scored on a screen pass to make the score 14-7.
The Bulldogs utilized a blitz-heavy defensive scheme in the second half which disrupted the Tigers passing game. After the offense went four-and-out, the Tigers defense continued to struggle against the run and eventually North Forest scored on a 2-yard rush to tie the game at 14.
“When they first came out [of the half] we weren’t ready for that adjustment and we had to settle down a little bit and wake up,” Mobley said. “That’s playoff football so we’re going to make mistakes and now we have to go into next week’s practices and work on fixing them.”
Sealy opened their next possession playing the receivers close to the line to slow down the pressure by North Forest and utilized it to their advantage driving to midfield on short passes and depending on Bolden.
After another Sealy interception gave North Forest the ball on their own 30-yard line with four minutes left in the quarter, the Tigers forced a three-and-out and scored on their next possession with a trick play.
Eckhardt lined up next to quarterback Garret Zaskoda and took the pitch and then passed it to Kainer who ran across the field then cut up 48 yards for the touchdown. The play injected an energy into Bellville’s Pasture of Pain that was lacking since North Forest made their way back into the game.
That energy was almost immediately quieted when the Bulldogs took the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown to tie the game at 21 heading into the fourth quarter.
That feeling was only aided when North Forest had a pick-six just 16 seconds into the final quarter to go up 28-21. That’s when the offense began to rely heavily on the running game and Bolden.
“They were double-teaming Eckhardt and McNeese because they have to respect them and [Bolden’s] sense of balance has really come to him and he was reliable for us all night long,” Mobley said.
After McNeese took a broken trick play 45 yards by utilizing his speed and agility to outmaneuver several tacklers, Bolden ran in for a touchdown to tie the game once again at 28.
The Tigers forced a three-and-out from North Forest inside their own 10-yard line and a muffed punt gave the Tigers a prime scoring opportunity from their own 34-yard line with just under eight minutes remaining in the game.
After an Eckhardt run set the ball at the 14-yard line, Bolden once again ran it in to put the Tigers up 35-28.
“Coach Dabney kept my head up through the game and told me to put my mistakes past me and that’s what I did and then I just turned it on,” Bolden said.
North Forest’s last breath came with 4:34 left in the game and a 4th-and-long and they decided to attempt a fake punt which the Tigers quickly realized and shut down allowing them only a yard.
Bolden sealed the game with 45 seconds left running in his fourth touchdown of the game. The play came after Sealy converted a fourth-and-short on the Bulldogs 16-yard line.
Bolden finished the game with 163 yards on 25 carries and Eckhardt was the lead receiver with 10 catches for 86 yards and a touchdown.
“I told them that I want to be the generation that brings back Sealy Tiger football and to me, this is just the beginning,” Eckhardt said.
The Tigers will be playing their next playoff game against the Henderson Lions at Abe Martin Stadium in Lufkin with kickoff scheduled for 5 p.m. Henderson finished the regular season with an 8-2 record.