The final score shows the worst loss by the Yellow Jackets in a decade. How Denison got there, however, was the reason for consternation more than the finish.
There is no doubt that Denton Ryan has earned its reputation. But there was a lot on the line for Denison as it welcomed the Raiders, and the Jackets led at the end of the first quarter — which saw Ryan scoreless. But against a talented team like the Raiders, the failed opportunities so close to being touchdowns haunted Denison.
Three trips to the five-yard line yielded no points for the Jackets when the game was in the balance and Denton Ryan came away with the 56-16 victory in District 5-5A action on Friday night at Dr. Rene and Eva Gerard Field at Munson Stadium.
“We had our chances. Got to be better in the red zone,” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said. “When we should have scored the defense was playing well. We’ve got to move on. We still have a big game left to play.”
Spencer Sanders threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns and ran 110 yards and two scores and Emani Bailey finished with 20 carries for 229 yards and two touchdowns for Denton Ryan (9-0, 5-0), which had 553 yards, earned at least a share of the district title and can win it outright this week in the finale against Rider. The Raiders also clinched the top seed for the Division I bracket.
“It’s pick your poison. We tried to make them work for it,” Rogers said. “Early on I thought we did a really good job. They have a lot of speed; raw, athletic speed.”
Ty McFail had 122 yards on 19 carries for Denison (7-2, 4-1), which goes into the Battle of the Ax needing a victory and a Rider loss to Ryan to secure the top seed for the Division II bracket. They could still achieve that with a loss but it would come down to points in a three-way tiebreaker with Rider and Sherman for second place.
Two of those chances came in the first half and set the tone. Denison also had three turnovers and Ryan scored off two, including a 65-yard interception return by Tra Smith early in the third quarter.
Denison opened the second half with a touchdown drive as D.J. Gray got his feet down in the left side of the end zone on an eight-yard catch on fourth-and-five. It cut Ryan’s lead to 28-9.
On the ensuing kickoff, Zaelin Wimbish forced Jordan Rucker to fumble and Mateo Reyes recovered at the Ryan 41. The Jackets had a chance to make it a two-score game. But on the second play, Smith intercepted Austin Emery and returned it for the touchdown.
The Jackets bounced back with a TD drive that Kenny Gaffney finished with an 11-yard run through the left side of the line and it was back down to a 21-point Ryan lead.
Sanders scored on back-to-back possessions — sandwiched around Emery’s fourth-and-goal incompletion in the end zone as Denison was trying to keep up — and Bailey scored from a yard out with 4:40 left to finish off seven straight touchdown drives for the Raiders.
After being held out of the end zone in the first 12 minutes, Ryan came through with four touchdown drives to build a 28-2 half-time lead.
Gabe Douglas got the Raiders on the board with a seven-yard TD catch out to cap an 86-yard drive with just under three minutes gone in the second quarter.
Ryan tried an onside kick but Denison recovered and almost turned it into a go-ahead touchdown. The Jackets had first-and-10 at the Raiders 11-yard line and made it to the five before facing fourth-and-four. Denison went for it but Emery was stopped for no gain.
Sanders guided a seven-play, 95-yard drive in less than two minutes that saw Bailey scored from nine yards out with 4:24 remaining in the half.
Ryan went up 21-2 a minute later when Sanders connected with Chritauskie Dove for 19 yards. The quick strike came after Gray fumbled on the first play from scrimmage and Carson Kennedy recovered for Ryan.
The Raiders put together one final touchdown drive before the break when Dove caught a 17-yard TD pass with 33 seconds left on the clock.
Denison nearly got that score back when McFail broke free for 33 yards past midfield and a 10-yard pass picked up another first down to the Ryan 34 before the half ended.
Ryan opened the game with a 13-play drive that ended at the Denison 29 on a fourth-down incomplete pass.
The Jackets then went the other way in 12 plays — all the way to the one-yard line but came away with nothing. Denison’s second-and-goal snap had a penalty and the Jackets settled for a 23-yard field goal attempt by Emery, which was blocked by Del’Shun Neal.
Moments later the scoreless tie was broken on a bad punt snap. Ryan gained a first down before being forced to kick. The snap skipped past Riley Nuzzo to his left and he kicked it out of the end zone.
Denison held that 2-0 lead with 2:48 left in the quarter and it stayed that way until three minutes into the second when Ryan took control for good.