Carthage’s Opportunistic Defense Carries Dawgs to Fifth State Title
ARLINGTON -- The Carthage Bulldogs followed a familiar pattern back to the top of the high school football mountain.
Carthage's shutdown defense in the second half carried it to the title game, then led the Bulldogs to their fifth state championship since 2008.
The Bulldogs forced six turnovers -- five in the second half -- and powered past Abilene Wylie in the fourth quarter for a 31-17 win before 24,139 fans Friday evening in the Class 4A Division I championship at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
“It won’t ever get old, and if it does I need to get out of coaching," said Carthage coach Scott Surratt, who improved to 41-5 in the playoffs since taking over the program in 2007. "Nervous excitement before the game, but once you get in it, the nerves go. But there at the end, it’s just ecstatic energy. That’s what it’s all about.”
Carthage won a three-peat from 2008-10, and defeated arch-rival Kilgore for the title in 2013 before claiming yet another crown.
“Five championships in a program, I could only dream of one," Surratt said. "It’s just great coaches and great players. We went 0-2 in district, and now we’re state champions. That’s unbelievable.”
Carthage fell behind Wylie, 14-0, six minutes into the game, before scoring 31 of the game's final 34 points. Carthage trailed in each of its previous two playoff games against Stafford and China Spring, only to come from behind.
Four of Carthage's first five postseason wins were decided by just 13 points.
"We got accustomed to those tight games," said Carthage senior quarterback Kason Davis. "It brings out the best in us and all our fans. I even think (Wylie) knew that we liked the close games.”
Carthage junior running back Keaontay Ingram, who was bottled up for two quarters, got loose in the second half. He finished the night with 180 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, after being limited to just 54 yards before halftime.
Ingram set the single-season school record for a junior with 2,225 rushing yards, which along with his 31 rushing touchdowns, rank third all-time for one season.
"I’ve been here since I was little," said Ingram, who was voted the championship game's Offensive Most Valuable Player. "Back when we won in ’08, I remember running back Dwight Smith and how he ran the ball. He had an amazing impact on how I wanted to run the ball. It’s a great win to keep the legacy going.”
The six forced turnovers belonged to three Carthage defenders. Mekhi Colbert and Mason Graham had two interceptions apiece, while senior defensive lineman Austin Russell recovered two fumbles and earned Defensive MVP honors.
Colbert, a junior cornerback, had five takeaways over the final three games, including a fumble return for a touchdown in Carthage's one-point regional championship win over Stafford.
“It’s been a different guy each week really," said Carthage defensive coordinator Darren Preston. "They’ve just been solid for us, and we try not to ask them to do too much. It’s just a great honor to be with these guys.”
Carthage turned Wylie's two turnovers into 21 points. That came on the heels of last week's triple overtime semifinal win over China Spring when Carthage overcame five giveaways.
Ingram, who lost three fumbles last week, didn't put the ball on the turf Friday.
“I think I owed it to the team (after) last game," Ingram said. "I knew coming into this game that we couldn’t afford turnovers against a team like this. I gave all the credit to the offensive line, which helped me with taking care of the ball.”
Added Surratt: “We never mentioned fumbling. At all practices we work on ball-security drills, but you’ve never seen anybody work as hard as Keaontay Ingram. On Monday he was so upset about the three fumbles, but he made up for it.”
Carthage shutout Wylie in the second half, marking the second time in three weeks it has held an opponent scoreless in the third and fourth quarters. China Spring could only manage three points in the second half and three overtime periods a week ago.
Wylie finished the game with 220 yards, but only 46 of that came in the second half. All five Wylie post-halftime possessions ended with turnovers.
"The offensive guys and the head coach get way too much credit, but our defense won this thing," Surratt said.
Carthage didn't capitalize on the miscues until the final moments of the third quarter. Colbert intercepted Wylie quarterback Zach Smith, and returned the pick 26 yards to the Wylie 43 with 15 seconds to play in the quarter.
Davis converted a third down with a completion to Dewaylon Ingram, then snuck across the goal line from the 1 on third down to put Carthage up, 24-17, with 8:10 remaining.
Graham picked off Smith on the ensuing drive, and Keaontay Ingram did the rest by running for 57 of Carthage's 63 yards. His 14-yard touchdown gave Carthage the two-score margin.
Smith was intercepted by Graham again to end the next series, and the Carthage offense extinguished the final 3:10 of the clock.
"They pounded the ball at us and put a lot of pressure on us defensively," said Wylie coach Hugh Sandifer. "Just too many turnovers, either by our doing or their doing with tipped balls or whatever. You just can’t give a good team the ball like that continually.”
Brady Horn's 36-yard return on the game's opening kickoff gave Wylie great starting field position at its own 49. A 21-yard completion from Smith to Jonas Lunsford on third-and-12 immediately preceded Smith's 32-yard scoring strike to Gatlin Martin.
Following a Carthage three-and-out, Wylie drove 64 yards in seven plays, and took a 14-0 lead on Smith's 5-yard touchdown pass to Martin with 5:55 remaining in the first quarter.
“We’ve been down probably 10 games out of 15, and there’s no panic in these guys," Surratt said. "It was a long game and we knew it was gonna be a long game. We maybe had a little nerves early, but we worked those out, and played very well after that.”
Carthage responded with perhaps its biggest offensive possession of the year. On fourth-and-16, Davis connected with Dewaylon Ingram for a 25-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 14-7 late in the first quarter.
On the next play from scrimmage, Carthage defensive end Tre Gatlin's strip-sack and Russell's fumble recovery at the Wylie 14 led to Keaontay Ingram's game-tying touchdown run two plays later.
“Bad things happen in a long game and we overcame everything that happened to us. (Wylie) was the best (defensive front) we’ve seen all year, no doubt, and I think we wore them down. I think you saw that at the end; we kept plugging and plugging."
Carthage, which was 4-of-4 on fourth-down conversions in the first half, executed a fake punt on fourth-and-5 from its own 29, and went on a 17-play march that consumed more than seven minutes of the clock.
Brandon Medrano's 26-yard field goal gave Carthage a 17-14 lead with 2:08 until halftime, but a 44-yard kickoff return by Cason Grant put Wylie at its own 45. And Cameron Hanna's 27-yard field goal with four seconds remaining sent the game into halftime, tied 17-17.
"People thought we were the underdogs in every single game we played (in the playoffs), and we kinda like that role," said Davis, who finished with 134 yards passing and a touchdown. "(At halftime) I told them, ‘this is our half.’”
Carthage 31, No. 9 Abilene Wylie 17
Class 4A Division I Championship
At AT&T Stadium, Arlington
Carthage 7 10 0 14 -- 31
Wylie 14 3 0 0 -- 17
WYL--Gatlin Martin 32 pass from Zach Smith (Cameron Hanna kick), 10:09.
WYL--Martin 5 pass from Smith (Hanna kick), 5:55.
CAR--Dewaylon Ingram 25 pass from Kason Davis (Brandon Medrano kick), :23.
CAR--Keaontay Ingram 2 run (Medrano kick), 11:55.
CAR--FG Medrano 26, 2:08.
WYL--FG Hanna 27, :04.
CAR--Davis 1 run (Medrano kick), 8:10.
CAR--Keaontay Ingram 14 run (Medrano kick), 3:49.
First Downs 18 10
Total Yards 342 220
Rushes-Yards 44-201 23-73
Passing Yards 141 147
Comp.-Att.-Int. 13-22-1 9-18-4
Punts-Avg. 3-40.3 1-36.0
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 2-2
Penalties-Yards 5-55 5-30
RUSHING--Carthage, Keaontay Ingram 28-180, Mekhi Colbert 2-20, Kason Davis 11-14, Team 3-(-13). Wylie, Brooks Pepper 10-45, Zach Smith 10-25, Cason Grant 1-3, Cameron Hanna 2-0.
PASSING--Carthage, Davis 13-21-1--134, Dee Bowens 1-1-0--7. Wylie, Smith 9-18-4--147.
RECEIVING--Carthage, Dewaylon Ingram 4-67, Keaontay Ingram 3-23, Josh Gradberg 3-14, Colbert 2-30, Davis 1-7. Wylie, Tyler Henson 2-64, Gatlin Martin 2-37, Ethan Smith 2-13, Cason Grant 2-12, Jonas Lunsford 1-21.