With its senior leader watching from the sidelines because of injury, Arkadelphia turned to its defense to create offense to again turn the tables on Joe T. Robinson on Friday night.
The Badgers scored 14 points off four Senator turnovers and got a huge play from their special teams late to walk away from Charlie George Stadium with a 28-27, 7-4A conference victory in a rematch of last season's Class 4A state championship game.
"This game right here just shows how much character our players have," said Arkadelphia coach J.R. Eldridge, whose team blistered Robinson 28-0 in the final a year ago. "The way they were able to handle adversity, to be able to put on more steam on offense, defense and special teams. ... That says volumes about these guys. Even when we made mistakes, we were able to continue to put on more steam and come out of here with a victory."
Arkadelphia (4-1, 1-1) needed everything it could get to hold off Robinson, especially after the Badgers lost all-everything quarterback Cannon Turner late in the first half. The senior, who was named the most valuable player of the past two Class 4A state title games and came in averaging more than 100 yards rushing, carried 8 times for only 20 yards and completed just 4-of-8 passes for 104 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions before leaving the game with just under six minutes left in the second quarter after suffering an apparent shoulder injury while returning a kickoff. He also picked off two passes from his safety spot, returning one for a 47-yard touchdown.
Yet, for all the Badgers did right in his absence, it was a blocked extra point that kept them out front. Robinson pulled within one, 28-27, on an 18-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Buddy Gaston to senior wide receiver P.J. Hall with 6:20 remaining in the game. But a pair of Arkadelphia players got a hand on the ensuing point-after attempt, and the Badgers were able to seal it when senior linebacker Cole Turner recovered a fumble with 1:14 to go.
Cannon Turner's exit, however, seemed to galvanize the Badgers, who overcame four turnovers themselves to break the Senators' hearts a second time. Junior Braeden Thomas, who filled in for Turner, ran for 105 of his 108 yards after halftime and finished with three touchdowns, including a go-ahead 8-yard score with 8:26 remaining in the game.
Junior running back Hunter Smith ran 23 times for 143 yards for Robinson (4-1, 1-1), which had won the past three regular-season meetings between the two but couldn't get out of its own way in this one. To go along with their four giveaways, the Senators also turned the ball over on downs twice.
"You're not going to win a game like this when you turn the ball over like that," Robinson coach Todd Eskola said. "That was the story of the whole game. The kids played hard, and I've got to coach better.
"But when you have basically six turnovers, you're not going to win a game."
Junior defensive back James Jordan returned two interceptions for touchdowns and Gaston was 9-of-19 passing for 151 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions for the Senators, who couldn't build on its 21-14 halftime lead.
Robinson covered 83 yards in eight plays, with Gaston tossing a 7-yard touchdown pass to Hall with 9:07 left in the first quarter, to grab a 7-0 lead. Turner countered quickly on Arkadelphia's first play from scrimmage by finding Thomas behind the Senators' secondary for a 69-yard score.
Turner's interception return gave the Badgers a 14-7 lead, but Jordan responded with a 48-yard scoring return to tie it with 11:18 showing in the second quarter. A little more than six minutes later, Jordan shifted the advantage back to Robinson with an 85-yard interception return for a touchdown.
"Our defense did a great job," Eskola said. "They played their butts off. ... That's what's so disappointing about it. The offense just couldn't get it going like we wanted to."
Thomas tied the game at 21-21 with a 4-yard score with 5:46 remaining in the third quarter, then gave Arkadelphia the lead back for good with his eight-yarder in the fourth.
"He's is an outstanding athlete and made some things happen when we had to have it," Eldridge said of Thomas. "He showed confidence and stay poised throughout that second half and really kept us going on offense. But the effort from everybody, especially that defense, was just unbelievable.
"Getting to the football, being really violent when we got there and then finishing off plays. ... I just can't say enough about them."...