By JOEL McNEECE
The Vardaman Rams took advantage of five Bruce turnovers to hold off the Trojans for a 24-22 victory Thursday night at Carter Field in Vardaman.
"The ball bounced our way tonight," Vardaman Coach Justin Hollis said. "That's just the way it went. It's another Calhoun County rivalry. That's all it is."
The Rams dominated the scoreboard in the first half with quick scores. Willie Lee broke off a 44- yard run on the Rams' first play of the game. Two plays later QB Austin Spann ran 21 yards for a touchdown. The extra point missed for a 6-0 Vardaman lead just over two minutes into the game.
Near the end of the first quarter, Vardaman's Arsenio Lee picked off Bruce freshman QB Davis Brown and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown. The two-point try failed to keep the Rams in front 12-0.
Freshman Cody Jenkins picked off another Brown pass late in the second quarter and returned it to the Trojan 14-yard line. Willie Lee took care of it from there with a 14-yard scoring run to put the Rams up 18-0 at the half, despite being outgained by the Trojans 116-115 in the first two quarters.
The Trojans marched down the field on their first possession of the second half with ease with sophomore Reed Gregory under center. Gregory capped the 10-play 69-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. Gregory passed to Ben Williams to convert the 2-point conversion and cut the Rams lead to 18-8 mid way through the third quarter.
The Rams recaptured the momentum early in the fourth quarter when Donta Walker picked off a Gregory pass and returned it to the Bruce 17-yard line. A few plays later Willie Lee punched in his second touchdown, this one from four yards out, to put the Rams up 24-8 with only 6:11 remaining in the game.
Bruce struck quickly on the ensuing possession. Freshman RB Zay Armstrong took a pitch from Gregory, sprinted right and unleashed a deep throw to freshman WR Shaq Bush for a 65 yard touchdown. Nick Smith, who led the Trojans with 89 yards rushing in the game, powered across the goal line for the 2-point conversion to cut the Ram lead to 24-16 with just under six minutes remaining.
After the Trojan defense forced a Ram punt, the offense struck quickly again. Gregory hit Bush in the flat and he shook two tacklers and raced down the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 24-22 with 1:48 to play. The Trojans were penalized 15 yards for a "celebration" penalty which pushed the two-point try back to the 18. Gregory rolled right with several Rams in hot pursuit. Gregory floated a pass to the end zone that was hauled down by senior Justin Green for an apparent game-tying conversion.
The officials ruled Gregory had crossed the line of scrimmage nullifying the play. An unsportsmanlike penalty on the Trojans for disputing the call pushed the ball back to midfield for a re-try. Gregory's hail mary was wrestled for in the end zone but came up incomplete.
Vardaman recovered the ensuing onside kick and was able to take a knee to run out the clock and preserve the victory.
"It's great to get a win, especially against a good football team like Bruce," Hollis said. "I knew Bruce was going to be a good football team. A lot of folks weren't giving them much credit, but I know those coaches and they coach well, and I know those kids and they're going to play hard."
Hollis said he was proud of the way his team continued to work when the momentum turned against them.
"We got tired in the second half," Hollis said. "We're not in good shape. That's the big disappointment that I saw, but we'll get that corrected. When they got tired, they didn't quit. We're not where we need to be, but we're going to be a good football team."
Bruce Coach James Ray said he was excited by the way his team rallied in the second half.
"We've got a bunch of kids that love to play football," Ray said. "This bunch will scrap and fight. They don't have any quit in them."
Execution is the area the Trojans are lacking, Ray said.
"Our blocking up front wasn't good early on," Ray said. "Just getting the kids out there used to playing was important for us though. We messed up a lot of formations, blocking assignments, missed tackles, but that's stuff we think we'll get better at game by game."
Bruce finished with 338 total yards – 163 on the ground and 175 through the air. Brown completed one of 11 attempts for six yards with three interceptions. Gregory completed five of seven attempts for 104 yards, a touchdown and one interception.
Smith led the rushing attack with 89 yards. Demetrius Evans added 41 and Zay Armstrong 31.
Vardaman finished with 178 total yards – 165 rushing and 13 passing. QB Austin Spann completed four of 10 passes for 13 yards. Willie Lee led the rushing attack with 80 yards. Spann rushed for 62.
Bruce travels to Ackerman next Friday. Vardaman visits East Webster.