Sep. 3—Tahlequah overcame a sizable second-half deficit, but fell short in its season opener Friday against Sapulpa at Doc Wadley Stadium in Tahlequah.
The Tigers, who trailed 26-7 late in the third quarter, scored three consecutive touchdowns — each on quarterback Brody Younger to tight end Brayden Northington connections — took a 35-32 lead with just 1:25 remaining.
But the Chieftains had a late answer when running back Marco Smith scored on a 39-yard touchdown run with 27 seconds left to seal the deal and give Sapulpa a 39-35 win.
"Other than the scoreboard not going our way, you saw a lot of resiliency from our guys," Tahlequah head coach Brad Gilbert said. "They never flinched when they got down. They continued to encourage each other on the sideline and we controlled what we could control.
"We got some momentum...it was a game of momentum and we got it going our way, rallied to take the lead, but they made plays at the end to take the lead back. That's how it works sometimes.
"I'm extremely proud of our staff and the players for their effort. They represented the Tahlequah logo pretty well. Obviously there were lots of mistakes and we've got to correct all of those, and I don't think we'll be able to correct them in one day."
Tahlequah couldn't generate much of any offense until it found the Younger-to-Northington combination.
Younger, who completed 13 of 18 passes for 224 yards in his first career start, found a wide-open Northington across the middle for a 50-yard touchdown at the 1:51 mark of the third quarter to start the trifecta and get the Tigers to within 26-14.
The duo hooked up again with 9:11 remaining on an 86-yard pitch and catch that got Tahlequah within striking distance at 26-21. The final connection was from 29 yards out and gave the Tigers their first lead at 28-26 at the 8:58 mark of the fourth quarter.
The Chieftains, led by Smith's 227 rushing yards and two touchdowns and quarterback Colton Howard's 244 passing yards and three TDs, took a 32-28 lead with 5:02 remaining on a Howard 30-yard TD pass to Kylen Edwards. It was Edward's third touchdown reception of the game.
Tahlequah's final lead came on a 23-yard scoring pass from Younger to receiver Beckett Robinson.
The Tigers took a 7-6 lead into halftime. The lone score was on a 77-yard interception returned for a touchdown by defensive back Cale Matlock.
Northington finished with four receptions for a game-high 165 yards. Tahlequah was limited to 20 yards on the ground and closed with 244 total yards of offense.
Sapulpa, who ended with 533 total yards of offense, held a 32:49 to 15:01 time of possession advantage. Tre Morrow led all receivers with 11 catches and had 110 yards, and Edwards had six receptions for 106 yards.
Tigers' cornerback Dylan Leep joined Matlock with a first-half interception. Tahlequah had momentum going into halftime when the defense had a goal line stand to close the first half, but the Chieftains got it right back to start the second half by recovering an onside kick and then scoring on the first play from scrimmage when Howard found Edwards on a 50-yard touchdown.
Sapulpa added two more scores in the third quarter on a Howard 3-yard TD pass to Edwards and a Howard 6-yard touchdown run that made it 26-7.
The Tigers will travel to Wagoner Friday, Sept. 9 and then close non-district play with a home game against Sallisaw on Friday, Sept. 16.