When Byrd and Ruston met Thursday night at Lee Hedges Stadium for the 39th time since 1922, both teams were looking for a “signature win” and some momentum before heading into district play in a couple of weeks.
After the dust cleared, the Yellow Jackets were the ones signing autographs for the fifth time in the last six meetings, handing the Bearcats their third loss of the season, 16-9.
Byrd (3-1) made the most of Ruston’s turnovers, scoring 10 of its 16 points after intercepting Bearcats quarterback C.J. Gatlin twice in the first half.
Hayden Ellison’s pick on Ruston’s first possession led to a Jake Wyss 22-yard field goal and an early 3-0 Jackets lead.
Ellison, a 5-foot-9 junior free safety, has emerged as one of the leaders and big-play men this season. He had a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown last week against Fair Park.
“Our coaches have worked with us so much and an interception like I had just becomes instinct,” Ellison said. “It’s not just one person; it’s a total team effort.”
Ellison’s team returned only four starters from last year’s 12-1 squad and has steadily improved each week and looked very impressive early, averaging 33 points per game while holding opponents to an average of 10 points per contest.
While Ellison has helped spearhead the Jackets defense, it’s been senior quarterback J.D. Lorence stepping up to direct coach Mike Suggs’ multiple-option offense.
“Our motto and goal all year is just to get a little better every day and every week,” Suggs said. “A tough ballgame like this that we had to fight and scrap to win is only going to help us down the road.”
Lorence played mistake-free for the first 55 minutes of the game. Then with 5:05 left in the contest, Ruston’s Veontes Crowe intercepted Lorence on the Bearcats’ 15-yard line. A Yellow Jackets score at that point would have guaranteed a Byrd win. But Crowe’s pick gave the visitors a chance to win.
Gatlin was unable to direct what needed to be an 85-yard drive that could have tied the game with an extra point or pulled off an upset with a 2-point conversion for the win.
The Yellow Jackets defense stiffened when it had to, and forced Ruston to punt with 3:11 left. Then with 1:55 to play, Byrd junior linebacker Chandler Nance rocked Gatlin with a huge sack that forced a fumble that senior defensive end Jalen Bowers recovered to seal the victory.
“When I saw Chandler Nance deliver that knockout blow on their quarterback and knock the ball out I tried to pick it up and score,” Bowers said. “But I knew as long as I could fall on it we were going to win the game.”