Comeback kids

Tigers roar back in second half to defeat Nucla Mustangs 14-12

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— It would have been easy for the Hayden Tigers to quit Saturday afternoon at halftime against the defending state football champions.

Hayden was losing 6-0 to Nucla after two quarters of play, and the Tigers had not shown much on offense.

Hayden was held to negative yards rushing in the first half and had not even completed a pass. Coming into the second half, the Tigers had to find a way to move the ball against a team that had not lost in its past 14 games.

But the Tigers exploded in the second half and defeated one of the top-ranked teams in the state 14-12.

"This is a huge victory," said Kevin Kleckler, who is in his ninth year as the Tigers' coach. "This was David against Goliath. We were David.

"We showed a lot of heart to win this game."

The Tigers scored two second-half touchdowns because of the strong running by seniors Jacques Denker and Derek Stephenson.

"We made some adjustments to our offensive line in the second half that worked out for us," Kleckler said.

Although the Tigers gained 76 yards on the ground in the second half, the difference in the game was the passing of senior quarterback Riley Whiteman.

Whiteman, filling in for a suspended Kevin Miller, completed just three passes out of 15 attempts. But the passes Whiteman did complete were key.

In the third quarter with the Tigers trailing, Whiteman's first completion of the game was to Stephenson for 47 yards that took the ball to the Mustangs' 35-yard line.

"That play changed the momentum of the game," Kleckler said. "Riley showed great composure."

Four plays later the Tigers tied the score when Stephenson went in from 21 yards out on a reverse. On the two-point conversion, Whiteman was stopped short of the goal line.

The defensive battle that dominated the first half resumed until the fourth quarter when the Tigers got a break.

The Mustangs' senior punter, Autumn Boss, dropped back to punt at his own 28, but the ball was snapped over his head. Boss retrieved the ball at the 10-yard line but was immediately tackled by Whiteman. Boss was shaken up on the play, and the Tigers got a 15-yard penalty for celebrating.

From the 25-yard line, the Tigers marched to the goal line behind Denker's strong running. On third down from the 2-yard line, the Tigers almost turned the ball over when Whiteman pitched the ball over Denker's head. The senior tailback was able to recover the ball at the 9.

Facing a fourth down, the Tigers called a pass, and Whiteman delivered a strike to freshman wideout Evan Hilling. The Tigers converted the two-point conversion when Whiteman threw a pass to Denker.

The Mustangs immediately responded to the Tigers' score. Starting at their own 46-yard line, the Mustangs took four plays and less than a minute to score.

The Mustangs pulled within two points when tailback Sabin Mock scored on a 25-yard run. The Mustangs attempted to tie the game with a pass into the end zone. Hayden's Danny Hayden broke up the pass to preserve the Tigers' lead.

The final eight minutes of the game saw the Tigers stop the Mustangs on their last two possessions.

The win was sealed when senior Tanner Copeland sacked the Mustangs' quarterback, Alby Lewis, on fourth down.

The Tigers took over on offense and ran out the clock.

"They did a heck of a job against us defensively," said Rick Reinks, a Mustang assistant coach. "Our inexperienced offensive line struggled today, but Hayden has some good kids.

"I don't know if we came in overconfident, but we didn't get after them early, and they got us. Our kids aren't use to losing."

Kleckler also credits his defense.

"We controlled the game defensively," Kleckler said. "At halftime, we weren't too concerned because our defense was controlling the game."

The only score in the first half came because of the Mustangs' defense. With less than a minute remaining in the first half, the Tigers called a pass on third down deep in their own territory.

"We gambled, and we paid for it," Kleckler said.

Whiteman was sacked at the 1-yard line and fumbled. The Mustangs' Shawn Ficklin snatched the loose ball out of the air and ran in the end zone for a 6-0 lead.

With the win, Hayden is 1-1 on the season. Nucla also falls to 1-1. The Tigers' next game is on the road next Saturday against Norwood.

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