Oct. 9—Tyler Joice scored on a 16-yard touchdown run with under four minutes remaining to complete a dramatic Tahlequah comeback as the Tigers stunned No. 9 Sapulpa, 21-14, Friday at Doc Wadley Stadium.
The Tigers, who trailed 14-0 at halftime, were at a season best during the second half. They also had a 64-yard touchdown run from senior running back Malik McMurtrey and a 13-yard TD pass from Joice to tight end Jonathan Davis.
"We went into the locker room and just decided that we've got to play as well as we can and as hard as we can," Joice said. "Whatever the end result was, that's what it was and it just happened to be a win this time. We just picked it up in the second half, and I'm proud of my team."
Tahlequah improved to 4-2 overall and took a big step forward in District 5A-4 where they moved to 2-1. The Chieftains dropped to 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the district. It was the Tigers first win at Doc Wadley Stadium in three tries.
Joice's game-winning touchdown capped an 11-play, 87-yard drive that started with 7:34 remaining. The biggest play of the drive came on a Joice pass completion to Jacob Morrison for 30 yards that put Tahlequah at the Sapulpa 37-yard line. The Tigers later had an 11-yard from McMurtrey, followed by a 7-yard run by Joice to get to the Sapulpa 18.
"What's great is just the perseverance," Tahlequah head coach Brad Gilbert said. "We never quit and we continued to play. We've really been putting an emphasis the last couple of weeks of just being disciplined and to keep fighting. We've been close and we knew eventually this thing was going to click and we were going to be moving in the right direction in all three phases.
"The defense kept us in the game and gave us a chance to do this. We just got momentum, and it was great for these young men. They needed that, and we as coaches needed that. It was just a great high school football game, and it's great to be on the right side of those."
McMurtrey's 64-yard bolt down the right sideline to the end zone came with 9:33 left in the game and completed a three-play scoring drive that covered 76 yards. It came after the defense forced its second straight three-and-out.
Tahlequah's first scoring drive went 82 yards on 10 plays. Prior to Joice's scoring pass to Davis on fourth down with 32 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Tigers were sparked by 25 and 13-yard runs by McMurtrey as well as a 19-yard completion from Joice to McMurtrey.
The Tahlequah defense limited the Chieftains to 92 total yards of offense and forced three punts over the final two quarters after allowing 209 yards in the first half. Sapulpa was just 2 of 9 on third downs and 1 of 4 on fourth downs.
"We've simplified everything on both sides of the ball and have just tried to hone in on the abilities that they have and not try to put too much on their plate," Gilbert said.
Sapulpa's touchdowns came on a 55-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Bryson Williams to D'Angelo Mitchell in the opening quarter, and another Williams-to-Mitchell connection from 26 yards out at the 10:39 mark of the second quarter.
The Tigers got into the red zone twice in the first half but couldn't come away with points. They drove to the Sapulpa 10-yard line on their opening possession, but stumbled after Joice was sacked. In the second quarter, they got to the Sapulpa 16-yard line before Joice was intercepted.
Joice completed 15 of 18 passes for 138 yards and Tahlequah closed with 373 total yards of offense. The Tigers, who got a game-high 153 rushing yards on 18 carries from McMurtrey, converted on 8 of 16 third downs. Joice added 100 yards on the ground, and Morrison finished with four receptions for 75 yards.
The offensive line play was also much better Friday.
"Tyler ran the ball really well and made plays, Malik had a great game, and the guys up front were creating holes," Gilbert said. "They were doing things that we haven't necessarily seen consistently. We saw all of that in the second half. I can't say enough about these young men and the coaching staff. They've done a great job and continue to show up every day and work."
Tahlequah will take some momentum into its Thursday, Oct. 14 matchup on the road against Claremore (1-5, 1-2). The Zebras fell to top-ranked Collinsville, 27-3, Friday.
"We'll learn a lot from this tonight, but it's important that we enjoy this and then regroup and get ready for Claremore," Gilbert said. "Everything just felt right tonight, but it's one game. It was an important game, but we've got to keep it going."