Tahlequah's main point of emphasis in its season opener was to weather an early storm by Fort Gibson. Apparently Tahlequah wasn't able to construct a suitable storm shelter once Hurricane Fort Gibson arrived.
Fort Gibson scored on its opening offensive play and rattled off 21 straight points to open the contest. Fort Gibson then had to hold on late and squeak out a 42-33 victory at Doc Wadley Stadium.
"We escaped," Fort Gibson coach James Singleton said. "We felt pretty comfortable at one time when we were up 35-7. We scored 14 points like gang-busters to open the game, and the defense was swarming. We were also moving up and down the field and feeling pretty good.
"But then the second quarter, it got a little rough. From there, it got choppy on both sides."
Quarterback J.R. Singleton spearheaded Fort Gibson's offensive attack, logging one rushing touchdown and 82 yards on 18 carries. The junior signal caller was also seven of 14 through the air for 175 yards and two scores.
One of those touchdown passes was on Fort Gibson's very first offensive play — which was set up by a six-yard punt by Tahlequah.
Singleton found Michael Richey for a 26-yard score, and for the second straight season, Fort Gibson scored on its opening play from scrimmage against Tahlequah — much like last year's game at Leo Donahue Tiger Stadium when Singleton hit Zach Peterson for 75 yards to start the game.
Fort Gibson (1-0) would take a 21-0 lead after nearly 11 minutes had run off the clock.
"We have to find a way to start out quicker," said Tahlequah coach Brad Gilbert, whose team dropped to 0-1.
Tahlequah's first points of the season came with 1:07 left in the first quarter, when quarterback David Dick hit Kourt McMillan for an 80-yard score. The Tigers trailed 21-7 and would eventually trail 35-7 with 49 seconds left in the opening half.
Tahlequah, though, orchestrated a five-play drive in 41 seconds and capped it off with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Dick to Will Carlile.
Fort Gibson owned 35-14 lead at halftime.
Tahlequah controlled much of the second half, including the third quarter. While shutting out Fort Gibson in the third period, Tahlequah logged another Dick-to-McMillan 80-yard touchdown pass.
Dick finished the game 13 of 25 for 276 yards and four touchdown passes. McMillan amassed 235 yards on seven catches.
"He's had the ability," Gilbert said of McMillan, 5-foot-11, 160-pound senior. "He had a great game."
Singleton's final touchdown pass of the night — a 49-yarder to Will Rumbley — put Fort Gibson up 42-21 early in the fourth quarter. And the visiting Tigers appeared to be in solid shape.
However, Dick and McMillan connected again for a touchdown — this time for 36 yards — and Tahlequah was within 15 (42-27) with an point-after attempt looming at the 7:04 mark.
That's when an ejection in the third quarter came back to rear its ugly head for Tahlequah.
THS kicker Bryce Patrick was ejected in third quarter on a kickoff following McMillan's second long touchdown catch. Without Patrick, Tahlequah was forced to go for two in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers couldn't convert.
"We were in limbo," Gilbert said. "We've worked David before, but now we have to find a solution for next week."
On Fort Gibson's ensuing drive, Singleton was picked off by Tahlequah's Brandon Conrad, setting Tahlequah up at Fort Gibson's 20-yard line. It was Singleton's only interception of the game.
Tahlequah cashed in on the turnover, scoring three plays later on Dick's 7-yard run. However, Tahlequah failed on the point-after attempt again, this time with Dick kicking.
With a two-possession advantage, Fort Gibson melted the clock away once it took over with 4:46 left. A first-down run by Richey allowed Fort Gibson to work the clock down to 1:51 before punting.
Tahlequah would turn the ball over on downs four plays later.
"The resiliency and the character that our football team displayed is exactly who we are, and it shows you that we've grown up a lot," said Gilbert, whose team will host Rogers (Ark.) on Friday night. "We came back and had our opportunities...and I'm excited about the direction that we're headed in.
"I promise you, every single one of those young men in that locker room — we're not about moral victories and we don't like losing — believes we're heading in the right direction."