BELTON — While some would call the loss a step backward, Copperas Cove head coach Jack Welch believes his team is moving in the right direction.
The Bulldawgs lost consecutive regular-season games for the first time since 2003 on Friday, when Belton scored 21 unanswered points in the third quarter en route to a 35-31 come-from-behind victory. Despite blowing a 14-point halftime advantage, Welch insists the defeat cannot redefine the Bulldawgs, who were considered by many to be among the district’s elite before losing to Waco Midway and Belton in consecutive weeks.
“We are the same team, regardless of if we won the game (against Belton) by one point in the end or (lose) like it was,” Welch said. “We’ve just got to line up and keep working, and I think we will be fine.”
The Tigers, who entered the game with two district losses, desperately needed to knock off the Bulldawgs to keep themselves in the hunt for a playoff berth, but their prospects did not look promising until the second half began.
After trailing 21-7 at halftime, the Belton duo of quarterback Peter Shelburne and receiver Durham Smythe combined to score two touchdowns before Brandon Rhoads added another on the Tigers’ first three possessions of the second half to take control.
Copperas Cove (4-3, 2-2 District 8-5A) punted on its opening possession following halftime, setting up a 54-yard scoring drive for Belton (5-2, 2-2) as Shelburne and Smythe connected for an eight-yard touchdown.
Then, the Tigers recovered an onside kick to set up another short scoring drive with Shelburne and Smyth combining for their second touchdown in 45 seconds, tying the game 21-21 with 7:03 remaining.
Welch, however, disagreed with the recovery.
“We thought it got touched (before going 10 yards),” Welch said. “Our players saw it and felt like they couldn’t touch it because it only went nine yards. But I know you can only control what you do. Those things happen some times.”
Copperas Cove went three-and-out on the ensuring drive and Belton took over at its own 41-yard line following a punt. Three plays later, Rhoads found the end zone on a 30-yard run, and the Tigers held a 28-21 lead with 4:56 left in the quarter.
The Bulldawgs cut the lead four points, 28-24, following a 25-yard field goal from Issac Ogeda before reclaiming the lead on Robbie Seybold’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Rashaun Gibson early in the fourth quarter, but Shelburne scored the game-winning touchdown on a two-yard run with 2:46 remaining.
“The third quarter was the big thing,” Belton head coach Rodney Southern said. “We executed better on offense and tackled better, much better.”
The Bulldawgs were forced to play the game without one of District 8-5A’s elite players in junior running back Vondareaz King, who missed the game for personal reasons. Welch did not make King’s status for Friday’s home game against Ellison available.
With King sidelined at Belton, the Bulldawgs turned to senior running back Daniel Ruff to carry the load, accounting for a game-high 126 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
“You’ve got to play the players who are ready to go, you never have control of those things,” Welch said.
The defensive highlight for Copperas Cove came in the second quarter. Leading by 14 points, the Bulldawgs’ defense generated an important stop by stuffing the Tigers on four consecutive plays after Shelburne connected with Andre Ewing on a 54-yard pass down to Copperas Cove’s one-yard line.
“That is character,” Welch said. “What we tell the kids is, regardless of what happens, stay positive and get back in the huddle. If you get back in the huddle, then you’ve still got a chance. I don’t care if the ball is at the 1-yward line or the half-inch line, and that was a great example.
“That shows how these kids are coming along right now, too. We are going to be better at the end of the year than we are right now. We are getting better every ballgame, and I thought we got better (against Belton).”