Bearden High School exited the locker room at halftime knowing that it was facing a quarterback that has not seen much time under center.
The Bulldogs’ plan was simple; consistently bring pressure against junior quarterback AJ Nunn, who replaced sophomore Mason Bragg after he suffered an apparent head injury last in the first half, and keep him uncomfortable.
The Cherokees struggled to get anything going offensively in the second half amidst a mass of blitzes, allowing Bearden to take a 27-14 victory Thursday.
“They had a kid in there that we hadn’t seen on film a whole lot, so we didn’t think he was very experienced,” Bearden head coach Morgan Shinlever said. “We felt we had an opportunity to do some things defensively that would cause some problems for him. Bringing a little bit of extra pressure seemed to do that trick to help us pull this one out.”
Nunn entered on the final play of the first half after Bragg was hit in the head on a scramble and forced to leave the game.
He was able to find junior wide receiver Ton’Quez Ball early in the third quarter to tie the game at 14, but that was the last time he was able to tack points onto the board despite numerous opportunities.
A 68-yard interception return by junior linebacker Farrell Scott put South-Doyle (1-3) deep in Bearden (3-1) territory with a chance to cut into their 27-14 deficit, but a penalty and a few incomplete passes with the Bulldog pass rush bearing down forced South-Doyle to settle for a 40-yard field goal attempt that sailed left of its mark.
Then, with four minutes remaining and an opportunity to keep the game alive on fourth-and-goal from the three-yard line, Nunn just missed Ball in the end zone, effectively putting an end to the game.
“We believe in our system and we kept doing what we do,” South-Doyle head coach Clark Duncan said. “You never want to lose a player, but there are no excuses. We’re just going to keep playing hard and keep getting better.”
While neither offense was efficient Thursday — each team turned the ball over five times — both sides relied heavily on one playmaker to carry them.
Bearden’s junior running back DJ Cox posted 123 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries while also adding a 26-yard touchdown catch from sophomore quarterback Collin Ironside.
“He’s improving each week and he’s growing up before our eyes,” Shinlever said. “We’re very glad he was able to come out and have a night like he did tonight because DJ deserves that.”
Ball provided both touchdowns and hauled in six catches for 118 yards for South-Doyle in his return to the starting lineup after serving a suspension last week for a targeting penalty he committed against Cherokee.
“He’s such a dynamic young man, on-and-off the field,” Duncan said. “There are going to be a lot of people wanting him to play on their team on Saturdays. We’re just glad he’s on our team and glad he’s back.”
Bragg’s injury is the latest in a common theme for the Cherokees early in the season. Entering Thursday, the Cherokees had missed a starter at nine different positions through the first three games of the season. It is likely that this injury could push that total to double digits.
“I’ve had a few (years) like this (in terms of injuries), last year being a prime example,” Duncan said. “But that was only about a three-week span. We’ve had a long span this year, but we feel good about where we are. We have players that we have a timeline on in terms of getting them back and they will certainly help the team.”
Bearden, on the other hand, looked to be at full force defensively, and it plans on relying on that unit to have success throughout the season.
“Our defense is a really level-headed group of kids that work extremely hard and are very coachable,” Shinlever said. “Any time that they can carry us, we have faith in that.”