NACOGDOCHES - From 0-3 to district champs.
With the coveted golden ball in sight, John Tyler didn't waste any time jumping to an early lead, scoring three quick touchdowns en route to a 28-16 victory over Nacogdoches on Friday night at Dragon Stadium.
The Lions' seventh win in a row gave them an undefeated, outright District 16-5A championship, the program's 26th overall title and first since 2012.
Next up for JT (7-3, 7-0) in the Class 5A Division I bi-district playoffs is a rematch with Texas High, slated for a 2 p.m. kickoff at Lobo Stadium in Longview on Saturday, Nov. 14.
"I'm proud of this team; I'm proud of their growth," JT coach Ricklan Holmes said. "To start out 0-3 and you end up 7-0, that's a big accomplishment for these young men. … We're just going to have to continue to get better."
Nacogdoches (5-5, 3-4) needed a win and a Corsicana loss to reach the postseason and although Ennis pulled out a dramatic 23-21 victory over the Tigers, the Dragons wound up on the outside looking in as Lindale grabbed the fourth and final playoff spot after defeating Whitehouse 41-25.
Lufkin, a 50-6 winner over Jacksonville, takes the No. 2 seed Division I behind JT, while Ennis goes into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in Division II, rendering the coin-flip game moot in the end.
All of the teams finished behind John Tyler, which had perhaps its best quarter of the season to lead 21-0 after one quarter and 28-0 at halftime, keyed by junior quarterback Bryson Smith.
Smith finished with 288 yards and two touchdowns passing to go with 74 yards and a score rushing, putting him over the 2,000-yard mark through the air and 1,000-yard plateau on the ground.
The Lions scored on their first three possessions, utilizing big pass plays each time as Smith finished the first quarter with 214 total yards, 185 of which came on 7 of 8 passing. He finished completing 11 of 15 passes.
Those numbers came mostly on deep passes against a Dragons secondary that featured Brandon Jones, one of the most coveted safeties in the class of 2016 in the nation.
"We had to try to attack their best player because you can't run from them," Holmes said. "You know he's on the field, you know he's going to make plays but we've got to try to make our plays also.
On their first drive, Smith hit Damion Miller for a 42 yard gain and on the next play rolled out to find Pierre Leonard for a 4-yard touchdown, the defensive lineman's first reception of the year.
After a three-and-out by Nacogdoches, JT started its second series at its own 5 but quickly worked its way down field via a 46-yard pass to Michael Givens-Washington. That set up a 9-yard scoring jaunt by Smith.
The Lions capped off the scoring splurge when Smith then hit Miller for a 58-yard touchdown to make it 21-0.
Miller totaled 113 yards on four catches while Javontavius Mosley, who hadn't caught a pass on offense all year, had two receptions for 68 yards, including a 63-yarder that put Smith over the 2,000-yard mark.
James Allen, who led the Lions with 80 yards on 18 rushes, scored on a 3-yard dash with 30 seconds left in the half to make it 28-0 heading into the break.
However, the JT offense largely stalled after that, recording just two first downs in the second half. The Lions missed field goal attempts of 23 and 36 yards but were unable to got on the scoreboard in the second half for only the second time all year.
"They've got to understand and realize that just because you start out strong don't mean that you let up," Holmes said. "When you … think you are one of the best teams in the state of Texas, you've got to play like that for four quarters. We only played like that for two quarters today."
Fortunately for the Lions, the JT defense shut Nacogdoches out for three quarters.
The Dragons finally got on the board on the first play of the fourth quarter on an 11-yard run by Phillip Jones, who led his team with 91 yards on the ground, though it took him 30 carries.
After JT stuffed Nac on four straight runs inside the 2, the Dragons made it 28-9 on a safety when Leonard was unable to get out of his own end zone on a run.
The Dragons scored on their ensuing possession on a 1-yard run by Jones to make it 28-16, but their onside kick attempt bouncing out of bounds to effectively end the game.
John Tyler held Nac to 63 yards in the first half before the Dragons surged late to finish with 301 yards.
"I think that's a tribute to that defense," Holmes said. That front has done a great job controlling the line of scrimmage, our linebackers were doing what we need them to do, secondary held up well. But that was only the first half. Second half we didn't do that."
Now the Lions will hope to put four quarters together against a team that took a 17-7 lead on them in the first quarter of their bi-district clash a year ago, also at Lobo Stadium.
"That's something I've been trying to teach them all year," Holmes said. "That's just something you've got to try to get better at each week and it starts at practice and you've got to carry it over to the football game."
John Tyler has reached the state semifinals in three of the last four years and their trek for another long run begins down the road in Longview, the home stadium of the team that gave the Lions their second of three straight losses to open the year.
Despite the winless start in non-district, John Tyler could celebrate with the golden ball trophy on Friday night.
"We learned how to play football," Holmes said. "We're still not there yet. If we want to make the state championship run like I know they can, they're going to have to believe more in their self than I do.
"I think they are playing like a team that has something to prove and it starts with proving something to themselves."
It starts Nov. 14 in Longview.
John Tyler 28, Nacogdoches 16
At Dragon Stadium
John Tyler 21 7 0 0 - 28
Nacogdoches 0 0 0 16 - 16
JT-Pierre Leonard 4 pass from Bryson Smith (Frankie Sanchez kick), 10:28.
JT-Smith 9 run (Sanchez kick), 6:59.
JT-Damion Miller 58 pass from Smith (Sanchez kick), 3:58.
JT-James Allen 3 run (Sanchez kick), 0:30.
NAC-Phillip Jones 11 run (Chris Campos-Gonzalez kick), 11:54.
NAC-Jones 1 run (Campos-Gonzalez kick), 0:57.
First Downs 17 18
Rushes-Yards 37-159 50-167
Passing Yards 288 134
Comp.-Att.-Int. 15-22-0 9-24-1
Punts-Avg. 4-35.8 5-35.0
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 0-0
Penalties-Yards 8-70 9-75
RUSHING-John Tyler, James Allen 18-80, Bryson Smith 12-74, Duntayviun Gross 1-2, Dejuan Beal 3-2, Pierre Leonard 2-1, Martrevious Allison 1-0. Nacogdoches, Phillip Jones 30-91, Noah Hildebrand 18-73, Alex Gregory 2-3.
PASSING-John Tyler, Smith 15-22-0-288. Nacogdoches, Hildebrand 9-24-1-134.
RECEIVING-John Tyler, Gross 5-44, Damion Miller 4-113, Javontavius Mosley 2-68, Michael Givens-Washington 2-41, Allen 1-18, Leonard 1-4. Nacogdoches, Jaylon Maxie 4-92, Jaylon Douglas 3-19, Kobe Poole 1-12, Gregory 1-11.