By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
FORT GIBSON — It lived up to its billing, so much so that Fort Gibson coach James Singleton was feeling a little spooky in the waning seconds.
Bradley Campbell’s 69-yard kickoff return just as it seemed Fort Gibson was on the verge of sealing the game extended it but for one more play. But Hilldale quarterback Chandler Puckett’s pass to Campbell fell incomplete in the end zone, allowing the homestanding Tigers to break in their new artificial surface with a rock-retaining 17-10 win in the Red-White Rumble at over-capacity Leo Donahue Tiger Stadium on Friday night.
“For all I knew they were going to score there because of the nature of the game. It was unbelievable out here tonight,” the coach said.
Hilldale coach Chad Kirkhart may be in disbelief for a while over the mind-numbing penalties that clearly cost his team a victory.
An encroachment flag kept sure-footed Tiger kicker Daniel Mielnik on the sideline, pushing the ball from the Hornets 8 to a first-and-goal at the 3. Two plays later, Tigers running back Michael Richey scored from the 1 with 20.1 seconds to play.
On its previous possession, Hilldale set sail on a 66-yard drive that reached the Fort Gibson 2 with 5 minutes to play. That was after a first-and-goal at the 4. Two handoffs to running back Seth Reheard were stuffed and a false start penalty sent it back to the 8. Puckett tried to find paydirt with his feet on a rollout but was tackled by Tristan Johnson at the 4, so Puckett settled for his foot, nailing a 21-yard field goal to tie matters.
Puckett also had a 22-yard toss to Bradley Campbell at the 10 go off his hands on that drive.
Fort Gibson quarterback J.R. Singleton had no such luck on the ensuing drive, connecting with Zach Peterson for 44 yards to the Hilldale 25. That put Fort Gibson well within Mielnik’s range, but he wasn’t needed.
“It felt great,” Peterson said. “I’m just happy to get that for the team because I know it helped us win the game.”
Hilldale (1-1) was flagged 11 times for 74 yards.
“Too many false starts,” Kirkhart said. “When you throw the ball you got to catch the football. All those things, all those mistakes, are important. It’s execution. And in this kind of game, the team that makes the fewest mistakes and the most big plays is going to win.”
Fort Gibson (2-0) started with a mistake on the very first play. Richey, who obviously redeemed himself in the end, fumbled the opening kickoff in a crowd at his team’s 31-yard line. Hilldale’s Jake Leybas recovered. After a clutch first-down pass to Campbell for 10 yards just after the first false start flag, Puckett ran for 12 yards and a score.
That’s how it stood at the half, in part because Hilldale squandered two other drives on interceptions.
The first was by Tristian Leonard. The other, and perhaps more painful because the Hornets were seriously threatening, came by Jordan London at the Tiger 25 that was returned 28 yards. Hilldale looked in business after pinned at its own 3, a Puckett to Campbell pass over the top in double coverage for 44 yards to the Hilldale 47. The drive reached the Fort Gibson 30.
Singleton hooked up with London on a 52-yard touchdown on the Tigers’ first drive of the second half, then added a Mielnik field goal of 29 yards to take its first lead at 10-7 with 3:03 to go in the third.
“Coach gave us a halftime talk about adversity and coming out with a bang. We decided we were the bigger team and the better team,” Peterson said.
Fort Gibson plays Catoosa at home next Friday and Hilldale goes to Beggs.
FORT GIBSON 17, HILLDALE 10
Hilldale 7 0 0 3-10
FTG 0 0 10 7-17
Hill-Chandler Puckett 12 run (Puckett kick), 10:42.`
FTG-Jordan London 52 pass from J.R. Singleton (Daniel Mielnik kick), 9:05.
FTG-Mielnik 29 FG, 3:03.
Hill-Puckett 21 FG, 4:43.
FTG- Richey 1 run (Mielnik kick), 16.0.
First Downs 14 15
Rushes-Yards 30-85 36-78
Passing Yards 121 182
Passes CAI 12-23-2 12-21-0
Punts-Avg. 4-30 4-19
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 2-1
Penalties-Yards 11-74 8-51
Rushing- Hilldale, Puckett 15-55 (TD). Fort Gibson, Chris Walker 10-47.
Passing: Hilldale, Puckett 12-23-121-2. Fort Gibson, Singleton 12-31-182-0 (TD).
Receiving: Hilldale: Bradley Campbell 4-77. Fort Gibson, London 4-80 (TD), Zach Peterson 2-54.