The Pine Bluff Zebras’ season got off to an unusual start Friday night at Jordan Stadium.
The Zebras’ first game ended in a 31-31 tie with Fort Smith Northside. In Arkansas high school football, nonconference games do not go to overtime, which is why the 7A/6A-South Zebras and the 7A/6A-Central Grizzlies ended in a deadlock.
A 37-yard field goal by Pine Bluff kicker Austin McGehee with 2.3 seconds remaining tied the score.
“He never blinked an eye,” head coach Bobby Bolding said of the Purdue verbal commit.
The ensuing kickoff by McGehee was returned for a small gain as the clock expired.
“Some people will say you should have gone for it,” Bolding said. “But these kids got behind and battled back, then got behind and battled back.
“So, having the chance to end in a tie? We’re going to take advantage of that.”
The McGehee field goal was the culmination of an impressive drive led by sophomore quarterback Ladarius Skelton.
“I don’t know how many sophomores were out there,” Bolding said of the final drive. “There were 2, 3, at least 4, maybe 5, and they were able to keep their composure.
“They thought they were going to win, but getting the field goal was impressive. The best part is that they are only going to get better.”
The Zebras took over with 4:21 remaining in the game after a 5-yard run by junior running back Justin Curry put Northside up 31-28.
With 1:34 left in the game, Pine Bluff faced a fourth-and-6 near midfield. On the play, Skelton dropped back and hit junior tight end Will Gragg for a 28-yard gain.
A huge sack by the Grizzlies forced the Zebras into a third-and-22 situation.
A run up the middle by Skelton got Pine Bluff to the 20-yard line — and perhaps more importantly, the middle of the field — to set up McGehee’s heroics.
McGehee’s kick finished off a game that saw a scoring outburst right out of the gate.
On the game’s first drive, Skelton threw an interception that was wiped out by a defensive holding penalty. On the next play, Skelton found a seam and broke off a 44-yard touchdown run.
Pine Bluff found the end zone again soon after. Zebras junior Greg Harvey picked off Grizzlies junior quarterback Grant Hood to set up Pine Bluff with great field position.
The Zebras’ offense took advantage as senior running back Trevor Hunt scored from 1 yard out to give Pine Bluff a 14-0 lead.
The ensuing kickoff was retuned to the Pine Bluff 40-yard line with a McGehee tackle the only thing preventing a touchdown.
Two plays later, Northside finally found the end zone when Curry got around the left side for a 38-yard touchdown run. A successful two-point conversion pulled the Grizzlies within 14-8.
Northside took the momentum and rode it to two more touchdowns. Hood scored from 14 yards out and hit senior Alberto Steward with a 13-yard pass.
The latter gave the Grizzlies a 21-14 lead.
Skelton, who struggled passing early on, found sophomore Kacy Higgins behind the defense for a 54-yard touchdown pass to knot the score.
Northside had a great opportunity to take the lead into halftime, but a dropped pass and a missed field goal by junior Gustavo Hernandez sent the game into the break tied 21-21.
Northside got the ball first after halftime and chewed up over 7 1/2 minutes of the third quarter. However, the time-consuming drive only netted the Grizzlies three points as Hernandez converted a 36-yard field goal.
The Zebras responded with Skelton hitting Gragg for a 10-yard touchdown to take a 28-24 lead just two plays into the fourth quarter.
Arguably the biggest plays of the game were made on the following drive by the Pine Bluff defense.
Pine Bluff stuffed Curry on a third down play from the Zebras’ 1-yard line. On fourth down, the defensive line got a huge push that forced Hood to fumble and Curry’s attempt to scoop-and-score came up a yard short.
Northside’s defense stood strong and forced Pine Bluff to punt out of its own end zone.
McGehee got the punt off just in time, Curry fielded it and made a couple of Zebras miss but then coughed up the ball, and Pine Bluff sophomore Romar Reades recovered it with just over 6 minutes to go.
The Grizzlies forced another three-and-out and this time was able to block McGehee’s punt by pushing his personal protector back into him.
Northside recovered the blocked punt at the Pine Bluff 30-yard line, which led to Curry’s go-ahead touchdown.
The game might not have ended in a win, but Bolding was proud of how his coaches and team did.
“I thought our defensive coaches did a good job of making adjustments at halftime,” Bolding said. “But, then (Northside) came out and made adjustments in formations.
“They were able to get the ball out on the edge and we struggled with that, but, man, our kids just played so hard tonight.”
Pine Bluff’s next contest will be a road game next Friday at 7 p.m. against Watson Chapel, which did not play during Week 1.