PARK HILL — A sullen Dakota Matlock was making his way to the door. As he prepared to exit the Cougars' locker room, Keys head coach Gary Willis had a message for his 5-foot-9, 165-pound tailback.
"You were the best player out on the field tonight," Willis proclaimed. "No one else was as good as you."
Matlock acknowledged his coach with a nod before vanishing into the chilly autumn air at Cougar Stadium on Friday night.
Matlock had just polished off another 100-yard rushing performance for the Cougars, racking up 131 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. But those statistics came in a 42-6 loss to Jay, resulting in mixed emotions from Matlock.
Willis, despite his team's fifth straight loss, raved about his sophomore ball carrier.
"Dakota was the best player on the field tonight, regardless of the score and regardless of what Jay has," Willis said. "He's been the best athlete on the field a couple of times this year."
Keys' lone touchdown against the Bulldogs (5-4, 3-3 District 3A-7) came on Matlock's 69-yard scamper down the left boundary with 6:27 left in the second quarter.
But by that point, Jay was already in full control.
The Bulldogs scored on their first four offensive drives — each starting inside Keys territory — to race out to a 28-0 advantage at the 6:48 mark in the second quarter.
After forcing Keys (1-8, 1-4) to go three-and-out on its first drive, Jay took over at the Cougars' 42-yard line and scored a touchdown in nine plays. Quarterback Brandon Weaver capped off the drive with a 9-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Hayden Cunningham.
The Bulldogs followed that same script for their next two scores.
After two more three-and-outs by the Cougars, Jay took over inside Keys territory and scored on eight- and seven-play drives. Before the first quarter ended, Christian Duffield logged a 1-yard touchdown run, and the Bulldogs struck quickly in the second quarter on Derick Shrum's 4-yard scoring run, which put Jay up 21-0 with 9:45 left until halftime.
Duffield added another 1-yard touchdown run to give Jay a four-score edge.
Contributing to Jay's easy navigation on offense in the first half was field position. The Cougars snapped the ball 21 times on offense in the first half, and only one of those plays took place on Jay's side of the 50-yard line (and it wasn't even Matlock's touchdown run).
The Bulldogs obliterated Keys in field position and used it to their advantage to build a big lead in the first 24 minutes.
"Part of it was we wanted to get (Keys) in some second- and third-and-longs, and then we thought we could bring some pressures and be tough on them," Jay head coach Darrin Wegner said. "And our kids did that. We were able to get short fields, and we were in four-down territory when we were getting the ball, and we were kind of calling plays knowing that we had four snaps to pick (first downs) up."
Jay led 28-6 at halftime, and the Bulldogs added two more touchdowns — a 19-yard run by Shrum and a 4-yard pass from Weaver to Kongmong Vang — in the third quarter to eliminate any suspense.
Weaver was the model of efficiency for Jay, completing 14 of 16 passes for 157 yards. Brett Pritchett was Weaver's favorite target with four catches for 62 yards, but Vang, Shrum and Cunningham all had three receptions apiece.
A week after posting 217 rushing yards against Sequoyah, Jay settled for 123 yards on 41 carries against the Cougars. Brooks Carroll recorded a team-high 57 yards on 12 carries.
"The whole bunch of us do it," Wegner said of his team's offensive production. "We don't have any big home run threat or anything, but we have some solid, hard-working kids that can catch and they run hard and block hard."
Other than Matlock's production, Keys struggled to churn out yardage. Garett Willis' 46 rushing yards was the next-highest contribution.
The Cougars finished with only 171 yards of total offense.
The loss eliminated any chance Keys had of making the playoffs. The Cougars will close out the season on Friday at home against Locust Grove, who has already won the district title.
"It's been kind of the same old, same old for this club this year," Willis said. "We just keep challenging them to play hard, and I thought we played harder in the second half than in the first. I just thought we came out flat."
For Jay, the playoff picture now gets complicated. In Week 10, the Bulldogs will have to have to hope for a Sequoyah loss — or a slim Sequoyah victory — against Lincoln Christian. If the Indians lose or win by four points or less, Jay will secure a playoff spot in 3A-7. Anything other than that and Jay will become a spectator in the playoffs.
That means Jay will be keeping an eye on the 3A-7 scoreboard when playing at Blackwell in the final week of the regular season.
"Not what everyone likes to do in Week 10 before the playoffs," Wegner said of the three-hour-plus drive to Blackwell. "But we just need to keep getting better, and then we'll find out who we play then."