It was a festive, playoff atmosphere at Robertson Stadium Friday night, and the Lovell Bulldogs and Newcastle Dogies engaged in a classic gridiron battle that saw the Bulldogs prevail 23-20 and advance to the state championship game for the first time since 2003.
The final score is a little misleading as the Bulldogs led 23-6 with four minutes left in the game before a late Dogie rally put a scare into Bulldog fans, players and coaches.
Even coach Doug Hazen admitted he got a little nervous in the final minute of the game.
“To me, it wasn’t as close as the score shows – until the last on-side kick (following Newcastle’s last touchdown),” Hazen said. “Then I felt the pressure. I would have preferred our guys to make a couple of tackles inbounds and not allowing them to score.
“Our ‘prevent’ defense almost prevented us from winning, but if we make a couple of tackles inbounds, the clock runs out.”
Newcastle won the statistical battle, outgaining the Bulldogs 359-206 in total yards, but the Bulldogs were opportunistic on defense, thwarting six Newcastle drives with turnovers – five interceptions and one fumble. Sophomore linebacker Dillon Pickett snared three interceptions, and Dino Collins and Mark Grant had one pick each.
The Bulldogs were also hampered by an early injury to top running back Dino Collins who, ironically, was hurt after intercepting a pass on the third play of the game, twisting his ankle on the play. Collins came back and played well, but wasn’t 100 percent. Dimas Patina did a good job in relief, as well.
“We had five interceptions and a number of pass break-ups,” Hazen said. “And they were good. They were a good team. I give Newcastle a lot of credit. There were not only a good team, they fought all the way to the end. They didn’t give up.
“That’s a credit to their coaching staff, as well as their players.”
The Lovell offense struggled to move the ball in the first quarter and most of the fourth quarter but scored three touchdowns and a field goal in between. Early, Hazen said, a lot of it had to do with adjusting to Collins’ injury, and in the fourth, the team was attempting to eat up the clock.
“With Dino, we had a certain game plan and then right from the get-go we couldn’t do what we expected to do,” he said. “It took us a while to get adjusted. But we also didn’t make plays in the first half. We dropped some passes or a pass would be off the fingertips.
“We didn’t get ourselves going like we had in the past.”
Collins’ early interception gave the Bulldogs the ball at the Newcastle 10, but they couldn’t move the ball, and Cody Savage’s 30-yard field goal was blocked. That was it for offensive threats in the first quarter as each team punted after that.
The Dogies put together their best drive of the first half – 67 yards — and threatened early in the second quarter, but Eli Moody crushed Newcastle back J.T. Harper on second and six from the 20 and Collin McArthur and McKayan May broke up passes on consecutive plays as Newcastle gave the ball back to the Bulldogs on downs.
The Bulldogs couldn’t move, but Savage boomed a 68-yard punt that pinned the Dogies back at their own 17. They drove to the 37, but consecutive penalties set them back to the 27 and Mitch Weigel’s second-and-20 pass was picked off by Pickett.
Lovell drove to the 9, and on third and three, May was hit before the ball arrived in the end zone on a pass from Dylan Hultgren, but there was no call. Savage then knocked through a 26-yard field goal and Lovell led 3-0.
The Bulldogs forced the Dogies three and out, then drove 44 yards to score following a short Dogie punt. Patina got things going with a 12-yard burst up the middle, and Hultgren found Hunter Hinckley for a 19-yard pass down the right sideline, where he held on despite a hard hit. Patina scored on an eight-yard run, juking past defenders, and Savage’s PAT put Lovell up 10-0 late in the first half.
Trailing 10-0 at the half, and kicking off to the Bulldogs to start the second half, the Dogies pulled off a bold move, kicking what Hazen described as a mortar kick that lofted above the first Lovell wall of blockers as Newcastle players made a beeline for the live football and, after a scramble, recovered the ball. With the momentum turned, Newcastle drove 36 yards to score on a one-yard run by Harper. The Bulldogs blocked the PAT, but Newcastle was in the game, trailing 10-6.
The Bulldogs responded, driving 75 yards to score thanks to hard running by Patina and Collins and a crisp, short passing game. Collins scored from 10 yards out on a sweep around left end. The PAT was wide left, but Lovell led 16-6.
A Newcastle fumble, recovered by AJ Montanez, set up a 65-yard scoring drive for the Bulldogs that culminated two minutes into the fourth quarter with a touchdown that put Lovell up 23-6. Hultgren found Savage slicing across the middle for a 33-yard gain, then later hit the tall end for a 17-yard touchdown pass.
“One of the big reasons we’ve had success this year is that we’ve been able to respond,” Hazen said. “Teams will make it close but we’re able to drive and extend out lead. Those two drives sealed the win for us.”
The fourth period was wild. Mark Grant intercepted a Weigel pass to end the first Newcastle threat, but the Bulldogs couldn’t move and punted to the end zone. Newcastle drove to the Lovell 23 thanks, in part, to an end-around pass from Harper to Sean Williams, good for 39 yards. On the next play, however, Weigel threw into traffic and Pickett picked him off, ending the threat.
Lovell couldn’t move as Newcastle “brought the house” to blitz against the Lovell running game and then sacked Hultgren at the Lovell three for a 15-yard loss. Savage got off a 57-yard punt, but Harper’s 17-yard return set the Dogies up at the Lovell 43. Four plays and a late-hit penalty later, Weigel found Andrew Hayman for a three-yard touchdown pass and Newcastle trailed 23-13 with 3:26 to play.
“We probably got a little conservative overall,” Hazen said. “Up 17, our main goal was to win the football game. We were probably a little too conservative sitting on it. One more score would have sealed the game.”
The ensuing onside kick went out of bounds, giving Lovell the ball at the 35, but again the Bulldogs couldn’t move and punted the ball. Pickett’s third interception of the game ended the Newcastle drive, but the Bulldogs couldn’t advance the ball and Savage punted to the Dogie 25 with 1:17 to play.
Weigel hit Harper for 23 yards over the middle, then kept the ball for a nine-yard gain. Williams fumbled on a pass from Weigel, but the Dogies recovered to preserve the drive. Fullback Dominic Rainbolt gained 10 on a draw, and after spiking the ball to stop the clock, Weigel found Williams slashing across the middle for a 30-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds left to play. Newcastle trailed 23-20.
Lovell put in the “hands” players on the kickoff, anticipating the onsides kick. They got it, but Collin McArthur scooped it in and covered up to preserve the win.
The Bulldogs finished with 82 yards rushing as Patina led the way with 72 yards on 17 carries and Collins added 28 yards on 10 carries. Sacks brought the team back to 82 yards overall. Newcastle rushed for 151 yards on 34 carries led by Rainbolt’s 64 yards on 12 attempts and Weigel’s 53 yards on eight carries.
Hultgren overcame a slow start to complete 10 of 20 passes for 124 yards, no interceptions and one touchdown. Savage caught six passes for 78 yards, Nathan Grant two for 15 yards, Hinckley one for 19 yards and Collins one for 12.
Newcastle’s alternating quarterbacks, Weigel and Harper, completed 15 of 31 passes for 208 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions.
Pickett led the Bulldogs in defensive points, finishing with 12 assisted tackles, one solo tackle and three interceptions to rack up 29 points. Mark Grant added 22 points on six assisted tackles, two solo stops, an interception and a blocked PAT. Hinckley had 17 points, McArthur 14, Montanez 13, Nathan Grant 12 and Savage, May and Ryan Clark 9 apiece.
By David Peck