Third quarter's the charm: Eagles' second-half surges propel championship run
ARLINGTON -- Allen football head coach Tom Westerberg emphasizes it all the time: the most important part of the game is the first five minutes of the third quarter.
Look back on the past six weeks of Eagles football and the build to Saturday's 35-21 Class 5A Division I State Championship win over Houston Lamar at Cowboys Stadium and that theory rings plenty true.
"The third quarter sets the tone for the game after the first half," said Cameron Hartsfield, senior defensive back and Defensive MVP. "We knew we had to come out with lots of intensity. In the first half, we were lagging a bit but we picked it back up and everything was all good."
There's been little lag in the way the Eagles have approached the first phase of the second quarter this postseason.
In its six playoff wins, Allen has outscored opponents in the third quarter, 79-15, and allowed just two touchdowns during that timeframe
Rounded out by a field goal against Skyline in the Region II Finals, the Eagles have surrendered points on just three third-quarter possessions this postseason compared to the 17 series in which the opposition came away empty-handed.
Breaking down those 17 possessions, the Eagles forced eight punts, four turnovers and five turnovers on downs.
And those stops have come against a playoff slate that included four teams ranked in the AP state poll in DeSoto (No. 2), Skyline (9), Mesquite (12) and Lamar (16). Fittingly enough, it's in those high-profile contests where the impact plays shined brightest.
Against Mesquite in the area round on Nov. 23, the Eagles reduced the high-powered Skeeters to just 37 yards on 17 plays for a trio of punts in the third quarter. The Allen offense responded with 14 unanswered points that turned a 21-21 halftime gridlock into a 35-21 pressure-cooker for the Skeeters.
"These guys go to work every Monday, watch the video and study," Westerberg said. "They put in a lot of work during the week and come out on Fridays and Saturdays and make plays. That's what it's all about."
Two weeks later, the Eagles' kickoff unit recovered a pair of Skyline fumbles to scuttle the Raiders' first two possessions of the second half. The result was 10 unanswered points and an eventual 34-10 advantage entering the fourth quarter.
"Our emphasis is to come out and take control in the first half and then to do it again in the second half," said Jeff Fleener, Allen offensive coordinator. "We feel that we're going to be the best-conditioned team in every game we play."
And in the state semis against a DeSoto squad then-ranked No. 1 in the nation according to MaxPreps, the Eagles found the end zone for touchdowns on offense (20-yard run by sophomore Kyler Murray), defense (40-yard interception return by junior Tay Evans) and special teams (85-yard kickoff return by junior Mayomi Olootu) -- all in the third quarter.
"We've had a lot of game-changing plays, whether it was on offense, defensive or special teams," said Oliver Pierce, senior receiver. "They've all been huge and I'm just so proud of these guys."
Things came a bit trickier against Lamar, which rallied for 13 points in the second quarter to trail Allen, 21-15, and seize momentum entering the break.
"Tonight, the crazy thing was that we had to remind them that we're still winning the game," Fleener said. "These guys get so discouraged when these games are close because they expect to win every game, score every point and shut them out. That's the intensity that we play with."
The Redskins' defense carried their intensity over into the third quarter and limited Allen to just 40 yards in 14 plays. Yet Lamar was still outscored, 7-6, in the frame thanks to timely plays by the Eagles' defense and special teams.
After pressure from Evans forced a third-down intentional grounding call on Lamar quarterback Darrell Colbert to open the quarter, the Redskins were stuffed on fourth-and-three from Allen 9-yard line by Evans and senior Nick Cobb.
"I was so happy," Hartsfield said. "My teammates made a great play on the quarterback and I give props to [Lamar] because they played a great game and played their hearts."
The defense did succumb to the Lamar passing attack one series later to tie the game at 21-21 with 2:04 remaining but Pierce quickly dashed any hopes of a comeback with an 80-yard kickoff return that set up Allen at the Lamar 16.
"I'm just glad I got my shot," Pierce said. "I wanted to make a play and I didn't return it for a touchdown, but I made a big momentum swing and this is just something I've wanted to do since I was little."
Five plays later, senior Marcus Ward found the end zone on a 1-yard run to nudge the Eagles back in front for a lead that would never be relinquished.
The Redskins would be held off the scoreboard for the remainder of the scoreboard, bled dry of any final grasp for momentum -- just like the efforts by Richardson, Mesquite, Round Rock Westwood, Skyline and DeSoto that preceded theirs.
And as a result, the Eagles hoisted their second state championship in five seasons.
"I'm so proud of these guys," Pierce said. "In the spring, I don't think many people had faith in us except for those guys in the room. This is an amazing feeling."