First-year Bearcats Head Coach Matt Plunkett celebrates with Jayden Sullins during Thursday night's 28-27 win over Jasper. (Joe McElroy for The Cullman Tribune)
CULLMAN – The first night of the 2018 season was full of drama for the Cullman Bearcats (6A, Region 7) as momentum shifted back and forth for four quarters between them and the visiting Jasper Vikings (5A, Region 7). After playing a nip and tuck game with the Vikings all night, the victory was secured for Cullman when quarterback Max Dueland found Dylon Wallace in the back corner of the end zone on fourth down with three seconds to play in the game. The touchdown pass in the final seconds tied the game at 27, and Luke Andrews booted through the extra point to give the ‘Cats a 28-27 win to start the season.
Things started a little shaky on offense for Cullman in the first half. Dueland’s first pass was intercepted and the next two possessions for the Bearcats ended with a punt and a missed field goal. Jasper punched in a 1-yard touchdown run on its second possession to take an early 7-0 lead, but Cullman was able to respond on special teams. Seth Gable got through to block a Vikings punt in the second quarter and the ‘Cats took over all the way down inside the Jasper 5-yard line. Two plays later, Ezra Burks scored from 5 yards out to tie the game at 7.
Cullman struck again in the second quarter when Dueland connected with his younger brother Jake Dueland for a 17-yard touchdown. Jake Dueland finished the game with four catches for 47 yards and a touchdown, leading the Bearcats in receiving yardage. The scoring in the first half was far from over, though, as the Vikings managed to hit an 80-yard touchdown pass with just 30 seconds remaining in the first half. The huge swing in momentum would’ve been tough for Cullman to deal with at the half but somehow, the Bearcats were able to find the end zone again in the first half. After a big kick return from Jimnie Chau Le and a 24-yard pass to Jayden Sullins, Max Dueland dumped off a throwback pass to JT White, who ran it in from 22 yards out and put Cullman up 21-14 at halftime following the PAT.
Things didn’t change in the second half. The Vikings and the Bearcats continued to play each other close, but Jasper struck first in the third quarter with a 3-yard touchdown run that came at the end of a 13-play, six-minute drive. Cullman either punted or failed to convert fourth down on its next four possessions, and on top of that, Jasper was able to run in one more score from 5 yards out midway through the final quarter. The Vikings missed the ensuing extra point, keeping the lead to 27-21.
Cullman got one more possession with 1:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, and it started around midfield. On third down and long, Max Dueland found his running back, Sullins, crossing the middle of the field for a first down and a 15-yard targeting penalty tacked onto the end of the play. Sullins was the workhorse for Cullman’s offense Thursday night, carrying the ball 25 times for 107 yards and catching five passes for 43 yards.
With the ball on the 15-yard line, Max Dueland threw three straight incomplete passes before hitting Wallace in the corner of the end zone on fourth down with just three seconds to play. Andrews came on to kick the extra point and knocked it through to ice the game at 28-27 and start the 2018 season 1-0. Max Dueland finished his debut as the ‘Cats quarterback 19-of-27 for 164 yards and had three touchdowns following the interception on his first pass.
As a sophomore quarterback making his first ever start, nerves were a factor for the QB early on, but he was able to settle down as the game progressed and by the end of the night, was throwing the game-winner.
“I was kind of nervous in the beginning, but after the first half things started getting better,” he said. “We didn’t have the best second half, but coach called a play that we knew we could score on and I don’t know, I just threw it up and hoped for the best.”
Senior linebacker and receiver Wallace knew the ball was coming to him on that fourth down play, and he was confident in his ability to make the play after working on it all week.
“It was a designed play for me, a little fade ball to the back corner,” Wallace said. “We’ve been working on it all week and it helped us out a lot right there.”
Thursday night was also a debut night for Head Coach Matt Plunkett. Plunkett talked about deciding which play to run at the end of the game and the intangibles he saw in his team during game one.
“I knew we wanted to go with the fade ball to Dylon Wallace and just give him a chance. We’ve practiced that play a few times and he’s really good in one-on-one situations,” Plunkett said. “I really found out a lot about our team. We don’t have any quitters out there. We never quit; our kids believed they could win the whole time and I was really proud of them for that. We’ve just got to get mentally tougher and communicate better, but overall, we’re 1-0 and it sure is a lot better than being 0-1.”
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