For the Airline Vikings, Friday’s game against Byrd at Airline Stadium was one of those “what might have been” games.
Of course, that’s usually the case for the losing team in any close game. But if you ask any Airline player, they’ll likely tell you it’s a game they could’ve and maybe should’ve won.
The Vikings rallied from a 21-6 halftime deficit to tie the game with 7:40 left in the fourth quarter on Shun’Cee Thomas’ 80-yard run and Thomas McKain’s two-point conversion pass to Cameron Howell.
But Byrd responded with a 90-yard touchdown drive and then got a 61-yard pick six by Luther Dallas with about a minute left to salt away a 35-21 District 1-5A victory.
The loss dropped Airline to 7-2 overall and 3-2 in district. While the loss eliminated the Vikings from district title contention, Airline will still likely host a first-round home game. Airline was No. 16 in the latest LHSAA 5A power ratings released Tuesday, but No. 11 among non-select schools. The top 16 will host first-round games.
The Vikings close the regular season at home against Parkway (8-1, 4-1), which routed Southwood 54-0. Airline was No. 16 in the latest LHSAA 5A power ratings. The top 16 teams host first-round playoff games. A win over Parkway will virtually guarantee the Vikings of a home game.
Airline had one of its best games of the season offensively, rolling up 456 total yards. The Vikings had almost twice as many offensive plays as Byrd.
Thomas McKain was on target most of the night, completing 20 of 34 passes for 228 yards.
But here’s where the “what might have been” comes in.
In the first half, Airline penetrated Byrd’s 20-yard line three times and came away with just two Gabe Rodriguez field goals of 27 and 25 yards.
After Byrd took a 7-6 lead on Deuce Caston’s 42-yard pass to Joey Jernigan, Airline drove inside the Yellow Jackets 10. Brian Fielding took a handoff and got near the goalline. As he was fighting hard to get in the end zone, he fumbled and Byrd recovered for a touchback.
The Jackets promptly drove 80 yards for a touchdown. Tray Allen went up the middle 36 yards for the score and a 14-6 Byrd lead. The Jackets’ final TD of the first half came on another big play as Jernigan sprinted 77 yards on an end around.
According to statistics kept for the Byrd radio broadcast, the Jackets had 383 yards total offense on 40 plays with 155 coming on the three TD plays.
Airline closed the gap to eight points late in the third quarter. Fielding darted through a big hole made by his offensive linemen and went untouched to the end zone. Rodriguez’s PAT made it 21-13 with 2:23 left.
Here’s another of those “what might have beens.”
With the big Airline crowd on its feet and getting loud, the Vikings stopped Byrd for negative yardage on three consecutive plays, forcing a punt from deep within Yellow Jackets territory.
Airline called time out with 5 seconds left in the quarter, forcing Byrd to punt against the wind.
Jernigan also serves as the Byrd punter. It was a bad snap. Jernigan managed to field it and it looked like he might get trapped in the end zone or deep in Byrd territory.
But he showed his athletic ability, escaping and running close to midfield. However, there were two penalties on the play — a hold on Byrd and an unsportsmanlike conduct on Airline.
Penalties hurt both teams. Byrd had 11 for 119 and Airline had nine for 81.
After marking the hold from the spot and assessing the unsportsmanlike penalty, Byrd had a first down. The Jackets were able to run several precious minutes off the clock before punting again.
That set up Thomas’ big run down the right sideline. The two-point conversion had the Airline fans in a frenzy.
But Caston drove the Jackets down the field. He hit several big passes with his receivers making diving catches on a couple. Caston scored the go-ahead TD on a 6-yard run with 3:10 left.
Byrd is a run-oriented option team, but Caston’s passing was a big key to the victory. He completed all seven of his attempts for 144 yards.
McKain and company weren’t done. The Vikings picked up a couple of first downs and advanced to near midfield. That’s when Dallas stepped in and returned the interception for the score.
Thomas finished with 114 yards on 22 carries. He also caught five passes for 59 yards.
Fielding rushed for 45 yards on seven carries. McKain added 30 on five.
Josh James recovered a fumble that led to Rodriguez’s second field goal in the first quarter.
— Russell Hedges, email@example.com