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Bearcats hang on to beat Westgate

Ruston advances to quarterfinal date with Walker
Friday, November 17, 2023
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Photo by Bret McCormick

Survive and advance. That’s all you need in the postseason.

No. 1 Ruston lived by that mantra maybe more than Bearcat fans would have liked but held on for a nail-biting 20-18 win over No. 16 Westgate on Friday night at Hoss Garrett Stadium, getting the necessary defensive stops it needed to hang on and continue its postseason journey.

“It wasn’t pretty in some areas and I’m not going to blame it on a bye week,” Ruston head coach Jerrod Baugh said postgame. “I think we need to do a better job getting prepared and ready to play in all three phases. We got some corrections to make going into next week but at the end of the day we did enough to win the ballgame and this time of year that’s all that counts.”

The Bearcats have leaned on their defense all season and the unit showed why again on Friday, allowing a field goal on the first Westgate drive of the night – going on to punt four times, turn the ball over on downs twice and throw a game-sealing interception into the waiting arms of Semaj Jones for his fourth of the season.

Westgate may have scored first but would soon trail for the remainder of the contest, starting on the first Ruston offensive series. The quick score was set up after Logan Malone took the ensuing kickoff to the Westgate 43, only for Ruston quarterback Josh Brantley to get a parade of blockers on quarterback-power for a touchdown on the first play of the game for the Bearcats for a 43-yard touchdown run for a 7-3 lead with 9:04 left in the first.

The scoring would stay stuck at 7-3 for a while before Brantley got man coverage down field to his favorite target Zhy Scott and dropped a dart into the basket of his senior tight end for a 39-yard touchdown to put Ruston up 14-3 at the break.

Brantley finished his night 4-9 passing for 73 yards and a touchdown, along with 15 carries for 96 yards and a touchdown.

“Really gutsy performance,” Baugh said of Brantley. “Really pleased with what Josh has done being able to run the football and putting our offense and our football team on his back and be able to make some big plays. That was just one of many he made during the ballgame.”

For as encouraging the start was for Ruston, the last minute drama came from missed opportunities early by Ruston’s offense who had two turnover on downs inside the Westgate 10-yard line.

The nerves seemed calm after Ruston came out of halftime and scored a touchdown on a 3-yard scamper from Jordan Hayes, who finished his night with 96 yards and the lone score, to go up 20-3 with 9 minutes left in the third.

But then Westgate grabbed the momentum with a deadly string of series in the final stages of the third and early fourth with a 35-yard touchdown to make it 20-10, only to get a safety after a wild snap on a Ruston punt attempt.

After the special teams gaffe, Westgate made it 20-18 with 6:14 left in the ballgame – needing a two-point conversion to tie the game. But Ruston defensive lineman Ka’Varion Key chased down the runner and stopped him well past the line of scrimmage to keep the score 20-18 in favor of the Bearcats.

“That’s what they’ve done all year,” Baugh said of his defense. “Offense has come on late in the season and we’ve leaned on our defense whenever we needed to and they played well.”

Jadon Mayfield led with 10 tackles, while Zheric Hill and Nate Johnson had 7 each. Semaj Jones finished with 3 tackles and the game-sealing interception.

Before the game, Westgate tried to gain a mental edge as it entered the field through Ruston’s sideline and then ran over the midfield logo – a sight not taken lightly by the Bearcats’ coaches and players.

Baugh bit his tongue as best he could postgame but admitted the pregame act from the Tigers gave his team another reason to come out ready to play hard.

“That’s not how we operate here and I talked to our kids about that,” Baugh said. “That’s not very good in my opinion but it is what it is. They had some confidence coming into the ballgame and that’s the reason I guess you do that.”

Ruston will host No. 9 Walker in the quarterfinals next Friday at 7 p.m. at Hoss Garrett Stadium.