By BEN JOHNSON
The ball came fluttering out of Brandon Conrad’s hands. And Tahlequah’s season may very well have gone with it.
Conrad fumbled on a late kickoff return, setting up a short field for Central, who took advantage and went on to beat Tahlequah 25-23 in front of a sparse crowd at Doc Wadley Stadium on Thursday night.
“It was a tough one,” said Tahlequah head coach Brad Gilbert in a somber tone. “It was a very tough loss.”
Central quarterback D’Angelo Brewer rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries for the Braves (2-5, 1-3 District 5A-4). The University of Tulsa commit also helped engineer the game-changing drive late in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 15-13 with 11:12 left, Central took over at its own 8-yard line. The Braves went the length of the field, converting first downs on three third downs and one on fourth down.
Tahlequah jumped offsides on fourth-and-1, putting Central at the 9-yard line with a fresh set of downs. On the next play, Central running back DJ Daniels scooted nine yards around the left side for the go-ahead touchdown.
“We know we’ve got the kids that are capable of doing those things,” Central coach Don Gibson said of his team’s go-ahead drive that chewed six minutes and 25 seconds off the clock.
“What we did was we said, ‘let’s get the ball in our playmakers’ hands and let them make plays,’ and that’s what they did.”
Aside from Brewer’s 31-yard run on third-and-4 from Central’s 15-yard line, the Braves didn’t have a play longer than nine yards on the drive. All 92 yards came on the ground among Brewer, Kejuan Johnson and Daniels.
On the ensuing kickoff with Central leading 19-15, Conrad fumbled on the return, and the Braves took over at Tahlequah’s 15-yard line. Then after a holding penalty and a false start penalty, Johnson scampered 30 yards to deliver a crushing blow while giving the Braves a 25-15 advantage.
“Turnovers on special teams, those things hurt,” Gilbert said of Conrad’s fumble — one of two lost for Tahlequah. “They’re setbacks and just make things a little more difficult.”
Staring at a 25-15 deficit, Tahlequah went 78 yards in nine plays, capped off by Reese Davis’ 5-yard touchdown run. A two-point conversion — holder Kyle Lucas’ pass to Davis — put the Tigers within two (25-23).
Tahlequah then tried an onside kick, which did not travel 10 yards, giving the Braves the ball at their own 49-yard line with 1:58 left. Central was forced to punt and Tahlequah took over at its own 43 with 1:04 on the clock.
However, the Tigers could not advance past Central’s 30-yard line, and the game ended when Tahlequah tried to spike the ball to kill the clock with zeros left on the timer.
The Tigers (1-6, 1-3) were led on offense by quarterback David Dick, who rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. Dick — who also completed 11 of 17 passes for 108 yards — scored the opening touchdown of the game on a 10-yard run with 7:07 left in the first period. He also added a 56-yard scoring run in the second quarter to give the Tigers a 15-6 lead — which would hold up as the halftime score.
Central — which logged 237 of its 256 total yards of offense on the ground — scored midway through the third quarter on Brewer’s 24-yard run, which trimmed Tahlequah’s lead to 15-13.
Tahlequah desperately needed a victory to stay in the thick of the playoff race in District 5A-4. Now the Tigers are tied with Central for sixth place with Claremore, Pryor, Coweta, East Central and Collinsville all having the inside track to a postseason spot.
“The crazy thing is we’ve got three games left, so we’re going to finish out strong and see where we stand at the end,” Gilbert said. “That’s hard to see right now, though.”
Tahlequah will be back on Gable Field on Oct. 25 against Pryor. Central will play Claremore in Week 8.
Central 25, Tahlequah 23
Cent 6 0 7 12 -- 25
Tah 7 8 0 8 -- 23
TAHLEQUAH — David Dick 10-yard run (Bryce Patrick kick), 7:07.
CENTRAL — D’Angelo Brewer 13-yard run (kick failed), 5:04.
TAHLEQUAH — Dick 56-yard run (Dick run), 10:21.
CENTRAL — Brewer 24-yard run (Anthony Barre kick), 6:14.
CENTRAL — DJ Daniels 9-yard run (conversion failed), 4:45.
CENTRAL — Kejuan Johnson 30-yard run (kick failed), 3:58.
TAHLEQUAH — Reese Davis 5-yard run (Kyle Lucas to Davis), 1:59.