Cleburne County came into its 75th homecoming game Friday night with no shot at making the Class 4A playoffs, but played like a team headed for the postseason in two weeks. The Tigers outplayed Lincoln in virtually every phase and left L.E. Bell Field with a 45-21 victory that kept the Golden Bears from at least a share of the region title.
The Tigers (5-4, 4-3) posted their second straight win over a region playoff contender by forcing turnovers, playing stout run defense and making second big plays on offense in the second half.
“The last two weeks have been very proud for us,” Tigers coach Michael Shortt said. “Where we’ve come from — oh and three — a lot of football teams would have given up, they would have quit, but this bunch has been very resilient.
“This was the next game for us. We’ve been approaching it like that every week since we were 0-3. If we don’t go (to the playoffs), we’re one heck of a good football team.”
The Tigers recovered four fumbles — one in each quarter — that led to three touchdowns and a field goal. They held the Golden Bears (5-4, 5-2) to 92 yards net rushing. And they had touchdown runs of 26, 71 and 60 yards in the second half to keep Lincoln at bay.
All seven of Cleburne County’s scoring drives were set up either by a fumble recovery or a big defensive stop.
“We always talk about getting turnovers; that’s what I went out to do tonight,” said Blake Turner, who had two of the recoveries. “We knew they were bigger and faster, but we had to show we had to do everything we could in our power to stop them.
“We didn’t expect it to be this big of a margin, but we came out playing hard and doing our best. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. That’s what we were trying to accomplish.”
Lincoln took leads of 7-0 and 14-7 on two Chance Byrd touchdown passes to Tredarian Gamble, but could never shake its hosts.
Byrd and Gamble connected 11 times for 189 yards and touchdowns of 30, 18 and 61 yards. Byrd was 13 of 28 passing for 212 yards.
The Tigers took their first lead with 38.8 seconds left in the first half -- on a 1-yard run by Turner -- and never trailed again.
“We knew we had to stay close early,” Shortt said. “We knew they were very big up front and we challenged our linemen this week that we’d have to play physical, but we’d have to do it late in the game. If we could get to that second quarter, if we could get to that fourth quarter conditioning maybe would come through and you could see that starting to happen.
“This was the kind of game we like to play, that line up and rock ‘em and sock ‘em and just see how physical you can get. That’s Cleburne County football.”
The Tigers extended their lead in the third quarter on Trey Bolton’s 26-yard touchdown run after a big sack by Danny Sweat and Trent Sheffield forced a punt. Lincoln matched it with the 61-yard Byrd-to-Gamble pass, but Bolton countered that with a 71-yard touchdown burst to make it 35-21. Tito Roblero kicked a 36-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter after Turner’s second fumble recovery and John Butler closed the scoring on a 60-yard run in the final two minutes.
In all, the Tigers rushed for 291 yards -- 202 in the second half. Bolton had 143 yards, 105 in the third quarter.
“My line blocked excellent tonight,” Bolton said. “Me and Isaiah (Ware) cut off their blocks and just made big plays.
“We wanted a winning season and we had to have this going into the next game to do that, so we wanted to play our hearts out for the seniors tonight.”
Lincoln could have won the region title with a victory and an Alexandria loss, but that became a moot point when Alexandria beat Jacksonville. The Golden Bears will still be the No. 2 team from the region.
“We got beat,” Lincoln coach Ryan Herring said. “Heflin did a better job than we did. All those turnovers in the first half killed us. Everything was going good and the next thing you know we start fumbling the ball. You have that many fumbles you’re not going to beat anybody — you shouldn’t beat anybody — and, of course, we didn’t do a good job tackling on defense.
“We couldn’t close the deal. When you fumble as many times as we did tonight, you’re not going to win.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @JSUSports_Star.