Plano vs. Marcus

Plano junior Luke Pressler, left, contests a pass by Marcus senior quarterback Jaxxon Warren, right, during Friday’s District 6-6A ballgame. The Marauders got the better of the Wildcats, 33-14.

PLANO — There’s still plenty of football to be played, but it’s not out of the question to call the events of Thursday’s District 6-6A ballgame against Plano a gut-check moment for Marcus.

Looking to suppress the hardships of a 17-14 loss to rival Flower Mound the week prior in their district opener, the Marauders were slow out of the gates on Thursday — falling prey to an early barrage by the Wildcats for a 14-0 deficit late in the first half.

The two-time defending district champions’ response was both swift and forceful, firing off 33 consecutive points to take a 33-14 victory from Clark Stadium and improve to 1-1 in conference play and 3-2 overall. Plano, meanwhile, dipped to 0-2 in 6-6A and 1-4 on the season.

“I knew we had it in us. We just kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Kevin Atkinson, Marcus head coach. “The defense and special teams answered the call. We say our vision for special teams is to provide the winning edge and they provided just that tonight. They played really well.”

Special teams execution was cast all across the back-and-forth district ballgame, including early in the second half as Marcus attempted to claw its way out of a 14-6 deficit. Playing in heavy winds, the Marauders initially had to punt on their opening drive of the third quarter — the ball, however, got caught in the wind and came down only to careen off a Plano player and be subsequently recovered by Marcus to reignite the visitors’ drive.

Six plays later, senior linebacker Emmerick Dopona burst through a crowd of Wildcat defenders to score a 7-yard touchdown run and trim the Marauders’ deficit to 14-13 with 6:22 left in the third quarter.

The Wildcats sputtered on special teams later in the frame after dropping the snap on a punt that wound up resulting in a net gain of 3 yards to set up Marcus at the Plano 30-yard line. Forty-seven seconds into the fourth quarter, senior Jaxxon Warren gave the Marauders their first lead of the night after finding junior Isaac Khattab over the middle for a 9-yard touchdown and a 19-14 advantage.

Following another Plano punt, Marcus iced the ballgame with 3:12 remaining on a 1-yard run by senior Gabe Espinoza followed by a 33-yard touchdown pass from sophomore Cole Welliver to junior Ashton Cozart for the finishing touches on the Marauders’ first district win.

"I love this group. I'd go to battle with these guys any day," Atkinson said.

Warren and Welliver alternated reps behind center throughout Thursday’s contest, with Warren throwing for 133 yards and two touchdowns and Welliver passing for 104 and a score. Although Marcus had a tough time igniting the one-two punch of Cozart and senior Dallas Dudley on the outside, the production of the team’s inside receivers — Khattab (seven catches, 74 yards and a touchdown) and senior Connor Vaughn (four catches, 82 yards and a touchdown) — sparked the passing offense to life.

“They executed the job we wanted them to. They played really well,” Atkinson said of Khattab and Vaughn.

The Marauders found a way despite Plano controlling the first half of Thursday’s ballgame. Although the Wildcats lost a fumble on their opening drive, they responded with back-to-back touchdown drives sparked by two lengthy gains. Junior Kameron Jones found the end zone on a 45-yard run, and senior Grant Garcia hit senior Michael Dorsey for a 33-yard score on fourth-and-11 with 2:43 left in the opening quarter for a 14-0 lead.

“I’m super pleased with how we started the game. We started fast on offense and defense, but the game of football is played through three phases,” said Todd Ford, Plano head coach. “Offensively, we carried our weight for a while and the defense was tremendous almost all night. Tonight, we decided our special teams was going to be the phase where we just didn’t pay attention to detail.”

Hot as the Wildcats’ offense began, their pass rush kept the Marauders in check early on. Senior Cam Robertson led a stifling effort up front that included five sacks in the first half. Sophomores Chad Smith and Jeffrey Sekula, plus juniors Luke Pressler and Cole Olavarrieta were also in on the heavy pressure early on.

The Marauders at last found a lifeline with 52 seconds left in the first half on a 35-yard strike from Warren to Vaughn to cut the deficit to 14-6. Marcus even had a chance at drawing even moments later after Plano failed to recover the ensuing kickoff, but Robertson and the pass rush held off the Marauders.

“It’s a consistent message of attention to detail in all three phases. The wind had a little to do with it, but those are the elements and it’s something we all dealt with tonight,” Ford said. “Credit Marcus for some of the plays they made, but what has to happen is that a play needs to be made somewhere to just stop the trend and get back on schedule. We just couldn’t find that tonight and it’s disappointing.”

Thursday’s loss spoiled a monster night for Dorsey, who caught nine balls for 202 yards and a touchdown in the defeat. Jones ran for 84 yards and a touchdown as Plano succumbed to another hard-luck second half following last week’s 35-13 loss to Coppell — a game the Wildcats were outscored 21-6 over the final two quarters.

“I like this group. They continue to fight and show up, but we’ve got to learn to consistently play well for four quarters. That’s been the message,” Ford said. “We’re a young team and I’m hoping and banking that these growing pains will end up paying off for us really, really soon. I feel like we can show up and be in any game we play as long as we’re paying attention to those details.”

The Wildcats look to get on track at 7 p.m. Oct. 8 at Hebron, while Marcus looks to build off the win with a home game against Coppell that same date and time.

For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow Matt Welch on Twitter.

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