Faced with fourth-quarter adversity for the first time in its inaugural season in Class 4-A, the Bluffton Bobcats demonstrated the experience, mettle and good fortune -- really good fortune -- that championship teams need to compete at the state's highest level.
Hosting its toughest Region 8-AAAA opponent to date in Fort Dorchester on Friday night, the Bobcats scored a go-ahead touchdown with just more than seven minutes left in the game and then watched as a pair of potential game-winning field goal attempts by the Patriots went wide left, giving Bluffton a hard-fought -- and fortunate -- 27-26 home triumph.
While the victory keeps Bluffton's undefeated regular season intact, the Bobcats had to overcome uncharacteristic turnovers and penalties and survive tense moments as Patriots kicker Luke Philyaw lined up a 20-yard kick with 10 seconds on the clock to win the game.
Like he did several minutes earlier with a 35-yarder, Philyaw missed the chip shot and the Bobcats, along with a stadium full of their most ardent supporters, breathed a significant sigh of relief.
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"I'm glad for every win, but that was something else," Bluffton head coach Ken Cribb said. "That was a really good team we played tonight and we were fortunate to get the win. They probably feel like they let one get away."
After giving up 12 fourth-quarter points off of turnovers in the span of two minutes to fall behind 26-21, Bluffton refused to let the game, and the prospects of a second straight perfect regular season slip away. With a little more than nine minutes on the clock, the Bobcats embarked on a five-play, 66-yard drive that featured a critical 58-yard run by senior Gerald Roberson.
Roberson, who had two scores on the evening, capped what proved to be the game-winning drive with a 5-yard run moments later. Bluffton missed the two-point conversion attempt to set up the placekicking drama that would unfurl minutes later.
"I told Coach that I wanted the ball," said Roberson. "The offensive line was doing such a great job blocking, and I knew we could move the ball. I just want to thank my line for blocking so well."
Bluffton appeared to be on its way to another of its patented home laughers after scoring touchdowns on its first two possessions with the usual mix of big plays through the air and power runs on the ground.
Tykeem Major opened the scoring with a 1-yard plunge that was set up by 62 passing yards by senior C.J. Frazier. Demetrius Smalls added the second score on a 14-yard reverse after Bluffton's defense forced an opening three-and-out by the Patriots.
Fort Dorchester, however, proved up to the task and answered with a pair of touchdowns in a two-minute span midway through the second quarter to turn the game from laugher to white-knuckler.
The second-quarter Patriot rally was highlighted by a 51-yard run by the speedy Charles Loftland that knotted the game at 14. Loftland was the star of the game with three touchdowns, including a 14-yard run that put Fort Dorchester ahead late in the game.
Bluffton went into the half with a 21-14 lead after Frazier found Roberson on a 20-yard pass play that stemmed the Patriots' momentum until the fourth quarter fireworks.
"We had some mistakes to be sure, but I'm proud of this team," Cribb said. "You can't go an entire season playing your best football. You're going to have nights like this. It will help us down the road."
A road, that thanks to fight and luck, isn't littered by a loss.
BLUFFTON 27, FORT DORCHESTER 26
Bluffton -- Tykeem Major 1 run (Mallie Sprouse kick).
Bluffton -- Demetrius Smalls 14 run (Sprouse kick).
FD -- Charles Loftland 2 run (Luke Philyaw kick).
FD -- Loftland 51 run (Philyaw kick).
Bluffton -- Gerald Roberson 20 catch from C.J. Frazier (Sprouse kick).
FD -- Daitwan Commodore 5 run (run failed).
FD -- Loftland 14 run (pass failed).
Bluffton -- Roberson 5 run (run failed).