SAGINAW — So what if the game was only for third place in District 6-4A. There was plenty of incentive for Saginaw High School's football team.
They were aiming for a 5-0 record at Rough Rider Stadium (and hadn't been challenged in the four previous victories); it was Senior Night; and -- more than anything -- the best regular season in the school's eight-year history was at stake.
On a windy Friday night, they prepared for the state playoffs with a 49-27 victory against Fort Worth Dunbar that was more convincing than it looked on the final scoreboard.
It was a nice cap for Mike Peters' third year as head coach. He took over after a 2009 playoff season in which 48 of the squad's 55 players were seniors. So playing mostly sophomores and then juniors, Saginaw went 0-10 and 1-9 while in Class 5A.
This year the Rough Riders dropped to 4A. Obviously that eased the schedule demands, but so did having an experienced team. And after last week's loss to city rival Boswell, there was still incentive.
"Seven wins was the most we'd ever had in one season," Peters explained. "Today getting that eighth win was huge for them. ... The kids executed; they had to buy into it. They were focused, and played really well."
The Rough Riders (8-2, 6-2) led 35-7 after three quarters, then coasted in as Dunbar (5-5, 5-3) busted out for a 20-point fourth quarter. There was suspense only after the Wildcats had two touchdowns in 13 seconds to make it 42-27.
Saginaw's offense overpowered Dunbar's defense most of the game, scoring on six of the first eight possessions (and botching a field-goal attempt on one of those). And that domination is what the Rough Riders' coaching staff had thought was possible after watching tapes.
"We matched up well with them," Peters said, "with their [defensive] front and ours [offensive line]. We've got a really good tailback [Russell Murphy], so if we can match up, he can take care of the rest."
With his line pushing Dunbar around, Murphy did take care of the rest. He had 1,003 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns coming into the game, and this was a four-TD night -- three 1-yard runs and a late 26-yarder -- with 24 carries for 158 yards.
Dalton Wachel hit seven of his first eight passes (the one miss was a catch inches out of bounds), with sophomore Cameron Atkinson scoring on two of them -- for 10 yards and a leaping 20-yarder in the corner of the end zone. Wachel finished 7-of-11 for a modest 98 yards, and he also ran nine times for 65 yards.
"He's been fantastic all year," Peters said of Wachel, "just helping us move the sticks down the field. ... He's done a great job. "He's real accurate and the thing about him is, we're a play-action type team and he makes that good decision whether to run or throw."
Jaylen King played a big role, too, setting up one score with a 22-yard punt return to the Dunbar 33, running 28 yards to the 1, and returning an interception 30 yards for a touchdown that made it 35-7.
While Murphy had impressive numbers, he wasn't the leading rusher and scorer in the district. Dunbar sophomore tailback Taylor Martin (1,690 yards, 22 TDs), however, was contained much of the game. For one thing, Saginaw controlled the ball.
Martin did contribute greatly to Dunbar's drive for a score after Saginaw had built a 14-0 lead. The Wildcats scored when Dan Harris, under a heavy rush, pushed a 2-yard pass to Stepfawn Hughes (five catches, 76 yards).
Martin finished with 126 yards on 18 carries, including a 5-yarder for Dunbar's final TD.
"It was a lot closer at the end than we wanted," Peters said of the Wildcats' wild comeback. With Dunbar down 35-7, it was triggered by Dan Harris' pass to Jai Butler in a seam in the Saginaw secondary. Butler broke two tackles and turned a 15-yard throw into an 83-yard touchdown.
The Rough Riders answered with a quick drive after a failed Dunbar onside kick attempt. Then Harris broke a 58-yard touchdown run; the Wildcats recovered an onside kick; Harris connected with Hughes on a 33-yard pass; and quickly -- after four TDs in a span of 2 minutes, 13 seconds -- it was 42-27.
But Saginaw recovered yet another onside kick, and quickly drove for a score on Martin's 26-yard sprint. Then it was time to start thinking about the playoffs. Saginaw will face top seed Denton Guyer in 4A Division I at Justin Northwest next Friday. The two schools each opened eight years ago, played each other twice with junior varsity teams in their first year, and Guyer has gone on to greater varsity success, including a state-title loss two years ago
"Heck, it'll be a tough one," Peters said of facing Guyer, which is No. 2 in the Star-Telegram 4A area poll.
Dunbar, headed to the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, will face top seed Wichita Falls Rider in 4A Division II on Friday night at Clark Stadium.
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