SAND HILLS — It was only fitting that Thursday night’s game ended with Bozeman’s punt coverage unit preserving a 27-20 win against visiting Vernon.
Because special teams played a direct hand in three of the Bucks’ touchdowns and combined with just enough second-half grit from the defense to deny a determined Vernon comeback bid.
The outcome left Bozeman 3-2 and Vernon 1-3.
The Bucks built a 20-7 lead after the first half when the Yellowjackets had more turnovers (three) than first downs (two). Vernon came out in the third quarter and suddenly owned the line of scrimmage, holding Bozeman to minus-16 yards on six third-quarter snaps, none for positive yardage.
When freshman quarterback Dyvion Bush connected with Chris Williams on fourth-and-10 from Bozeman’s 42, Williams broke two tackles and streaked into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game.
Ruben Chavez booted his second extra point to get the Yellowjackets within 20-14 with 22 seconds left in the third quarter.
When Chavez kickoff off deep, however, Tyler Bates caught a wedge up the middle of the field and broke into the clear at the Bucks’ 40.
Bates angled to the visiting sideline as he streaked downfield, broke a desperation tackle attempt near the 10 and completed a 90-yard touchdown return.
Despite their pitiful third-quarter output the Bucks played the Yellowjackets even on the scoreboard and led 27-14 entering the final 12 minutes.
But the victory was far from secured. The Yellowjackets gambled on fourth down four times in the second half and were successful on three of them. Only when Bush passed to Williams on fourth-and-goal from the Bucks’ 9 did Bozeman make the stop, Triston Tiller nailing Williams from behind at the 10 when pursuit forced the senior running back to try and cut back inside.
Bozeman appeared in the clear with just under 8 minutes remaining. It was then that Bucks fullback Cameron Hofmeister, who scored Bozeman’s three touchdowns in the first half and led all rushers with 97 yards, was stripped in a scrum with Vernon’s Jamar Massaline coming out with the ball at the 27.
This time Bush scrambled in from the 7 on fourth down with 4:39 remaining. Chavez’s kick was wide, but the Jackets were within one score at 27-20.
Hofmeister ground out two first downs as Bozeman attempted to drain the clock, but a holding call forced his fifth punt of the game. Tiller led a wave of Bucks’ defenders who swarmed Williams on the final play and a desperation lateral also failed.
The first half was domination on Bozeman’s part except for one play. Vernon opened the scoring when Bush caught the Bucks’ defense storming in and flipped a screen pass that Williams turned into a 74-yard touchdown reception.
Otherwise Vernon gained only 6 total yards on 14 other snaps, Bozeman with a whopping 36-15 edge in plays from scrimmage.
The Bucks tied the game using their first big play on special teams. Williams was victimized this time as Lane Kyser hit him on a punt return and Hugh Jones recovered his fumble at Vernon’s 27.
Quarterback Taylor Strickland, who completed five passes in the first half for 58 yards, found Hofmeister for 12 yards out of the backfield for a first down. Hofmeister then barreled in from the 14, Cam Walker’s extra point making it 7-7 with 1:13 left in the first quarter.
Bozeman took the lead on its only extended drive of the game which covered 67 yards on 13 plays following an interception by Bates. Hofmeister again scored from the 14 with 3:39 before halftime.
The Bucks kept possession on the ensuing kickoff when Jones made the hit on a Vernon player and Jordan Rosalis recovered at the Vernon 40.
Hunter Kruger got free for a 25-yard gain to the 15 and Hofmeister went over from the 1 with 1:40 left in the second quarter.
Bozeman had 177 total yards for the first half, but added only 32 thereafter. Williams produced 174 of Vernon’s 219 total with 50 yards on nine rushes and 124 on four receptions.
Jacob Fisher, who exceeded 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving in 2016, sat out the entire first quarter for Vernon. When he entered he was used at wide receiver and had 13 total yards on four touches.
Bozeman plays at Blountstown next week. Vernon hosts Graceville.