LITTLE ROCK — Pine Bluff’s offense disappeared after the first few minutes, leaving many wondering what might have been after the Zebras fell 31-24 to the El Dorado Wildcats.
Pine Bluff (9-4-1) couldn’t have asked for a much better start to Saturday’s 6A state championship game. The Zebras won the coin toss but opted to take the second half kickoff, a sign that head coach Bobby Bolding believed in his defense.
The unit proved the decision was a smart one as it forced a three-and-out on El Dorado’s (9-5) first possession.
Pine Bluff needed just three plays to find the end zone as sophomore Romar Reades turned a handoff on third-and-1 into a 46-yard touchdown. Senior kicker Austin McGehee nailed the extra point and the Zebras had a 7-0 lead just 2:12 into the game.
After another three-and-out by the Wildcats, the Zebras began their second drive at their own 22-yard line.
Pine Bluff worked its way to the El Dorado 23-yard line before the drive stalled. McGehee booted a 40-yard field goal and Pine Bluff led 10-0 with 4 minutes left in the first quarter.
Those points would be the final ones scored by the Zebras’ offense, which went into hiding for the game’s final 40 minutes.
Over the final three-plus quarters, Pine Bluff would cross midfield just three times and only entered the red zone once.
Even on its two scoring drives, Bolding saw signs that his offense might be in for a long night.
“Our first 12 plays, we lined up wrong on offense,” he said. “First 12 plays we lined up wrong.
“We didn’t handle the pressure very well.”
After those first two drives, which netted Pine Bluff 110 yards of offense, the Zebras managed just 165 more.
Asked about what changed, Bolding said, “Because we got whipped at the line of scrimmage. How many times do I have to tell you?
“They whipped at the line of scrimmage this time on both sides of the ball.
“It’s not any more complicated than that. We could not get pressure on the quarterback, so he threw the ball on us. We could not establish the run game.
“They whipped us at the line of scrimmage.”
Pine Bluff had some success running the ball as it finished with 206 rushing yards, but it was 80 fewer than it had in the teams’ first matchup.
Even though, Pine Bluff gained 4.9 yards per run, the passing attack never opened up as sophomore quarterback Ladarius Skelton completed just 6 of 15 passes for 59 yards and two interceptions.
Skelton did finish with a game-high 112 yards rushing and Reades added 63. Sophomore Kacy Higgins led the Zebras with just 23 yards receiving.
A touchdown on a blocked field goal and a touchdown on a fumble recovery in the end zone kept Pine Bluff in the game.
The two big plays by the Zebras’ special teams and defensive units, respectively, gave the offense some time to find itself. But when presented with two chances in the fourth quarter to atone for its mistakes, the offense just couldn’t make the plays.
Early in the final quarter, Pine Bluff was set to run a fourth-and-goal play from the one, but a false start backed the Zebras up 5 yards and Skelton’s toss to junior Will Gragg fell incomplete.
On their final drive, Skelton hit Tyran Simmons on back-to-back plays to give the Zebras a second-and-5 from the Wildcat 37-yard line.
Another false start backed up Pine Bluff, and then Skelton was taken down for a 9-yard loss.
An incomplete pass on third down meant the Zebras needed to convert a fourth-and-19 from their own 49.
Almost fittingly, Skelton picked up 18 yards on the play as the Pine Bluff offense let another chance slip away.
After the game, Bolding took responsibility for Pine Bluff’s struggles, including the offensive woes.
“I’m the head coach,” he said. “It’s my job to have them ready, and obviously they weren’t ready.”