FORDYCE — After winning the 8-4A Conference last season, McGehee dropped down to the 6-3A Conference.
By default, that should have made the Owls the favorite because they stepped down. But the 6-3A proved to be just as tough and McGehee found itself in a battle for the top spot.
The Owls came through, though, as they beat Fordyce 21-18 on Friday to claim the No. 1 seed from the conference and a share of the 6-3A Conference title with Prescott.
“This is back-to-back and I think this (conference) title may have been harder,” McGehee coach Marcus Haddock said. “I told everyone, the competition is not a drop down. It’s as stiff as it was last year and it’s a credit to the kids.”
McGehee (9-1, 6-1 in 6-3A) beat Prescott two weeks ago to earn the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed and the ever-important first round bye in the 3A playoffs.
“It’s very important because it gives us a week off that we desperately need to kind of recoup and heal up,” Haddock said. “It’s nice. The conference championship above all else is more important.”
Fordyce’s (7-3, 4-3) playoff destiny in the conference was locked in coming into the ballgame. The Redbugs will still be the No. 4 seed and travel to Horatio next week.
Fordyce dug itself an early hole. The Redbugs got the opening kickoff, which was an onside kick, and started at the 50-yard line.
McGehee forced a three-and-out and started at its own 13-yard line after Fordyce’s punt. The Owls traveled the 87 yards in 12 plays and David Shepard capped the drive with a 6-yard run for a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
Fordyce did not have much more luck on its second drive and punted for another three-and-out.
The Owls started at their 23-yard line this time and took 10 plays with Steven King scoring on a 12-yard run for a 15-0 lead with 11 seconds left in the first quarter.
“We dug ourselves a hole and we were not ready to play. I had seen it all week long,” Fordyce coach Tim Rodgers said. “After last week’s loss to (Camden) Harmony Grove, we were down.”
Fordyce was not out of the game, though. The Redbugs had another three-and-out and punted, but stopped the Owls’ drive at the Fordyce 46-yard line on a fourth-down play, which the Owls were about a half-yard short on.
Three plays later, Fordyce’s Brooks Eddington went up the middle on a run, broke two tackles and broke toward the right sideline. He got a block down the field and hurdled the defender and went in for a 33-yard score to put Fordyce on the board.
The Redbugs were down 15-6 and that would be the halftime score as Fordyce got the ball on a turnover on downs at its 19-yard line, but could not get past its 37-yard line.
McGehee opened the second half with the ball at its own 42-yard line after onside kick. On the eighth play of the drive, quarterback Maurice Hudson scored on a 5-yard keeper to make it 21-6.
It did not take Fordyce long to respond as Larry Buckley returned the ensuing kickoff 84-yard for a score and the Redbugs trailed 21-12.
Fordyce then had an onside kick that it recovered. The Redbugs would later score on Cole Johnson’s 7-yard fade to Rashad Allen to make it 21-18 with 3:08 left in the third quarter.
“I was very proud of the kids in the second half and got after it,” Rodgers said. “We had some opportunities. … The kids played hard and got after it and that’s all I can ask.”
Neither team got much going their next possessions. Fordyce turned the ball over on its 35-yard line after a fourth-and-1 pass was knocked down.
McGehee drove to Fordyce’s 17 and King broke loose on a fourth-and-6 play for 7 yards, but fumbled and Fordyce’s Paul Bryant recovered the ball at the 5.
Fordyce drove down to its 39-yard line. Johnson tried to hit Charles York on a deep pass, but he did not get enough air under the ball and York did not come back for it, so McGehee’s Roger Blackmon intercepted it with 5:21 left at its own 30.
The Owls did not give the ball back and King had a 9-yard run on a third-and-8 with 1:59 left to keep the ball in McGehee’s hands.
“They were bigger and stronger than us up front and King and all of them are good,” Rodgers said. “They pounded on us a lot and wore us down as the game went on.”
Shepard rushed for 167 yards on 22 carries and King had 135 yards on 27 carries as the Owls rushed for a total of 370 yards and had 12 yards passing.
“There was some passes there and there were some things that were open,” Haddock said. “But I learned from a very intelligent man that when you have the lead and you’ve got good kids, do what brought you there and run the football.”
Johnson was 14 of 25 through the air for 129 yards and Allen caught eight passes for 77 yards.