Whittington scores his sixth
Cuero’s Jordan Whittington high-steps into the end zone with his sixth touchdown of the day against Pleasant Grove Friday in the Class 4A Division II championship game. Photo by JONATHAN OWNEY.

Whittington scores all six TDs for winners

Two worthy champions went the distance in the Class 4A Division II Texas State final Friday and, in the end, Cuero had one warrior too many as the Gobblers scratched out a 40-28 win over Pleasant Grove.

Looking to repeat as champs at AT&T Stadium, PG broke from the gate fast to build a 21-7 first-half lead. Jordan Whittington responded by scoring six touchdowns and breaking the championship game rushing record with 334 yards to lift Cuero to a 40-28 victory and its fourth state title in 11 tries.

“It wasn’t just me, it was all of us,” said Whittington, a Texas signee voted both the game’s offensive and defensive MVP. “I just had a little more. We talked before the game that we didn’t come this far just to come this far.”

Whittington accounted for all of Cuero’s touchdowns and 72 percent of its offense.

After PG closed it to a five-point game with 4:36 to play, Whittington ran six straight times out of the Wildcat in a 58-yard scoring drive. On the final play, he found his path to the edge blocked, cut back, found the thinnest of seams and high-stepped into the end zone to put the final nail in the coffin.

“I’ve been coaching 18 years and I’ve never seen a kid take over a game like Jordan,” said Pleasant Grove coach Josh Gibson. “He took a big shot on our sideline from Bladen Reaves, and I could tell it really hurt him. I admire the way he gets up and responds. He’s very humble. He’s an unbelievable athlete, and when he has the ball in his hands he is super special. I’m going to be big Jordan Whittington fan the rest of my life.”

Congrats for Bruce
Bruce Garrett is congratulated by his blockers after a first-half touchdown run. Photo by JONATHAN OWNEY

“Duece” gets in his licks

Whittington, a Texas signee, overshadowed the performance of junior Pleasant Grove wingback Bruce Garrett, who became the school’s first 2,000-yard rusher with 208 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries. Down by 12 in the closing minutes, Garrett completed a 47-yard throwback pass to junior quarterback Ben Harmon, who scored on a sneak on the following play

The Hawks came close to covering the ensuing on-sides kick but didn’t, and the Gobblers slammed the door shut.

It was an ending that may have come as a surprise to the 12,784 – nearly evenly split – in attendance. Early in the contest, PG looked every bit the defending champion as it scored on three of its first four possessions, but as the game wore on the size and experience of Cuero’s senior-dominated lineup seemed to wear down the Hawks, most of whom are sophomores and juniors.

Gobblers scratch back into it

The tide started to turn just before halftime. With less than four minutes remaining Whittington lined up at quarterback in the Wildcat formation. He took in the shotgun snap, faked a move to the left, and headed to his right. Behind solid blocking from receivers, he hit the edge and streaked 54 yards to close the score to 21-14 at the 3:25 mark.

Two minutes later, a 43-yard punt by Harmon rolled dead at the Cuero 17.

Whittington runs of 10 and 17 yards and a 30-yard pass completion put the Gobblers at the PG 26 with 8 seconds in the half. Quarterback Michael Barta hit Whittington on a fade route at the pylon and Whittington appeared to have a TD on a diving circus catch into the end zone.

After lengthy replay study, however, referee Billy Epley ruled that the ball was not under control when the tip hit the ground and wiped out the score. He ordered two seconds put back on the clock.

Crowd happy
The Pleasant Grove crowd agrees with the referee’s call Saturday at AT&T Stadium. Photo by JONATHAN OWNEY

That was just enough time for Barta and Whittington to do it again. Despite tight coverage from the Hawks, Whittington again snagged the ball at the pylon. This time, there was no doubt.

“That was a huge play that Jordan made,” Gibson said. “To do it, have it called back and come back and do it again with two seconds left, all you can do is tip your hat and say, ‘Holy smokes.’”

The point-after try was wide, and the two teams headed into the locker room with PG nursing a 21-20 lead.

Second half all Cuero

“That play gave them some momentum, and I think their coaching staff did an awesome job scheming us. From the second quarter on, that was the hardest I’ve had to work in a long time.”

Cuero took the second-half kickoff and kept the ball for 16 plays and 8:20 before the Black Flag defense rose up and took the ball over on downs.

The joy on the PG sideline, however, was soon gone. Over the next 14 minutes, PG would run nine plays while Cuero ran 22 plays and scored four touchdowns.

The Hawks, who piled up 271 yards in the first half managed but four first downs in the second.

“They played a lot more physical and disciplined,” explained Harmon. “They stopped giving up the easy runs to the outside.”

The onslaught was aided by PG’s failure to convert on fourth-and-two from its own 34 early in the fourth quarter. Moments earlier Cuero took its first lead, 26-21, following a nine-play, 77-yard drive that ended with a pair of Whittington runs.

“We didn’t want to give the ball back to No. 3 (Whittington). He was playing so much Wildcat. You don’t get do-overs, but looking back now, I would have liked to have thrown that throwback play to Ben because they would have expected Bruce to get it on fourth down. Yeah, we did it because I believe in those guys that much.”

Five straight Whittington rushes later, it was 33-21 with 5:21 to play.

Olivia Kirk
Hawk cheerleader Olivia Kirk celebrates a big play by Pleasant Grove. Photo by JONATHAN OWNEY

Forty-seven seconds later, Garrett and Harmon teamed up to make it 33-28. That was as close as the Hawks would get.

Garrett, Whittington run wild early

In this contest, the past was not prologue. The Hawks came out of the tunnel on fire and Garrett rushed for 116 yards in the first quarter. He announced his presence on the game’s opening play, streaking to the outside and turning the corner for a 30-yard carry into Gobbler territory.

Four plays later, facing a fourth-and-six, Harmon scrambled away from interior pressure, broke a tackle and lofted a rainbow that Brett Walker grabbed at the seven for 38 yards and a first down.

After a penalty, Garrett burst through a gaping hole at right tackle for the score. Dillon Williams’ kick split the uprights and the Hawks were off to a fast start, 7-0, with 8:46 left in the first quarter

It took the Gobblers 17 seconds to answer. On first down from his own 30, Whittington, operating out of the Wildcat, took the long snap, faked to his left, and followed two textbook edge blocks to the right sideline and sprinted 70 yards for the score.

Garret answered with a nine-yard scoring run as time expired in the first quarter

Midway through the second period, the Gobblers threatened to tie it, marching from their own 30 to the Hawk 46. On third-and-two, junior linebacker Jamie Lewis slammed into a scrambling Barta, forcing a fumble that Cuero recovered at the line of scrimmage.

On fourth down, Lewis met running back Chance Albrecht in the hole for no gain.

Two plays later, Garrett ran a jet sweep to the right and found Whittington in his path. Garrett cut back, leaving Whitting grabbing for air, and sprinted away from the secondary for a 69-yard score to make it 21-7.

The Hawk faithful were barely back in their seats from that celebration when, two plays later, Whittington returned the favor from 54 yards out.

Eyes on the future

The outcome wasn’t what Pleasant Grove wanted, but with 40 of 53 players on Saturday’s roster set to return, Hawk Nation departed AT&T Stadium more hopeful than dejected. Among those seeing a bright future for the program was senior cornerback Tyler Kelley, who had six tackles in his final game.

“One of the main things Coach Gibson always teaches us is to always keep fighting, always play together,” Kelley said. “Last year was definitely special because we were so much better than everybody. This year we had close games, but we won those close games because came together.

“The future for them is very bright,” Kelly said of the youngsters. “I wouldn’t be shocked at all if I see them on TV next year at this time.”

Gibson credited his few seniors for helping a young team succeed before its time.

“We bring back nine offensive starters next year. There weren’t a lot of seniors, but the ones we had were pretty special,” he said. “For us to come back here and have a bad day, but it’s at AT&T in week 16, that’s not a bad place to have a bad day together.

“As much as anything, it hurts right now but we’re going to be able to celebrate this thing and that they were able to do something special and bring a team back from Texarkana, Texas, two years in a row.

“I’m very fired up about our young guys who get to come back. I’ve never seen a team get more out of their athletic ability than this 2018 Pleasant Grove team,” he said. “They may go down as the best team ever to reach their potential.”

Cuero Pleasant Grove
24 First Downs 11
37-387 Rush-yards 33-241
19-18-1 – 136 PA-PC-I-Yds 16-6-1 – 118
66-523 Total offense 49-539
4-46 Penalties-yards 5-25
1-26.0 Punts-Avg 4-38.8
27:59 Time of Possession 20:01
Hawks and trophy
Second in state in 2018 but always first in the hearts of their fans, the Pleasant Grove Hawks celebrate a second straight state championship appearance. Photo by KEVIN COOK.
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A veteran journalist and educator, Bill Owney is a 1980 graduate of the University of Florida. Writing awards include APME honors for investigative reporting, the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Award for public service reporting and numerous awards for editorial, column and news writing. He served as publisher of the Atlanta Citizens Journal and Pittsburg Gazette when each paper won sweepstakes awards from the Texas Press and North and East Texas Press Associations. He spent 15 years as a public school teacher and is an adjunct professor of English at Texarkana College.