LEONARD — The Commerce Tigers used a strong second half to grab their first win of the season on the road against the Leonard Tigers by a score of 35-22 in 3A non-district action Friday night at Tiger Stadium.
This was the third time in the past four seasons these teams had face each other, as last year’s matchup between Commerce (0-1) and Leonard (1-0) was cancelled due to lightning.
The action got off to an early start, as Leonard scored on their opening drive with Riley Ferron punching it in from two yards out. But Commerce was quick to answer on the ensuing drive, taking just three plays for Dayton Dunbar to scamper for a 24-yard scoring run. Dunbar was starting in place of the injured Xzay Basham and making the most of it. With Leonard opting for a two pointer on their opening score, Commerce was still down by a point.
Leonard added another touchdown after sophomore quarterback DJ Brown used his legs to score on a 13-yard run, which was followed by another successful two-point attempt. However, for the second time Commerce took just three plays to answer, with quarterback J’Den Wilson finding Brad Caldwell with a pass, and Caldwell using a nifty spin move to shake a defender and run the rest of the way for a 41-yard touchdown.
Commerce got a golden opportunity late in the first quarter after Brown fumbled the ball in Leonard territory, but Wilson tossed an interception in the end zone with 22 seconds remaining. The quarter ended with plenty of fireworks and a 16-14 Leonard lead.
What was shaping up to be a shootout quickly turned down the heat in the second quarter. Neither team could get anything going on offense and the half ended with Leonard still clinging to its tenuous two-point advantage.
Commerce took the second-half kickoff and for the third time made quick work of the Leonard defense. Dunbar scored his second touchdown of the night on a 35-yard run, this drive only taking two plays to complete. Commerce took their first lead of the night just 58 seconds into the first half.
To add to Commerce’s momentum, the Tiger defense got a crucial stop in the red zone, forcing Leonard to turn the ball over on downs. Later in the quarter Wilson dropped a bomb to Conner Smith for a 55-yard touchdown pass to extend the lead to two scores. This time, though, Leonard answered on their next drive, taking just over two minutes for Brown to toss an eight-yard scoring pass to freshman Cameron Armstrong in his first varsity game.
A huge blow was seemingly dealt to the Commerce offense when Dunbar went down with an injury late in the third quarter, but freshman Kendrick Greer was there to pick up the slack in his first varsity game. Greer scored a 30-yard touchdown run less than two minutes after entering the game, and Commerce ended the third quarter ahead 35-22.
Leonard had one last gasp in the fourth. Halfway through the quarter, Commerce’s defense was backed up all the way to the goal line after a pass interference penalty. But Commerce held strong, forcing a turnover on downs in a heroic goal line stand. This effectively sealed the victory, as Leonard had no timeouts, and Greer picked up multiple first downs to put the game away, giving the Tigers their first win of the young season.
Leonard was led by sophomore quarterback Brown, who carried the load for his team Friday. Brown ran the ball 27 times for 209 yards and a score, while completing 12 of 27 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. Ferron ran for just 13 yards on 12 rushes, but had a touchdown on the ground. Cody Houser was the leading pass catcher on the team, grabbing six passes for 43 yards, while freshman Armstrong scored his first-career touchdown with a scoring grab in the third quarter.
Commerce used a strong ground game to get the win, with the team as a whole averaging 13.9 yards per carry on the night. With top back Basham out, Dunbar picked up the slack and had a field day, running for 155 yards and two touchdowns on just 10 carries. After Dunbar went down in the third quarter, freshman Greer shined in his first game as a Tiger, running for 113 yards and a score on nine rushes. Wilson drastically improved his performance through the air after week one, completing eight of 15 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns, while also running for 10 yards on his only carry of the game. Caldwell and Smith were the only pass-catchers for Commerce, with Caldwell catching five for 80 yards and Smith grabbing three for 79 yards. Both caught a touchdown pass.
A negative spot for Commerce was the penalties, with the Tigers being penalized 13 times for 120 yards.
Commerce Head Coach Cody Ferrell was pumped up after the win, saying that the players have enough talent to go around.
“We have plenty of guys on the team that have ‘the juice,’” Farrell said. “So many of these kids can do so many great things out there.”
Farrell also wanted to give credit to a few individual efforts that he said were make-or-break for the team.
“I want to make sure I mention the play of Wade Nicholson on defense, he gives us such a presence out there, and he flies around like he was shot out of a cannon,” Farrell said. “And some of the unsung work by receivers like Brandon Turner and Conner Smith, their blocking on the outside really opened up the running game for us tonight.”
Farrell added that he is pleased with the depth shown by the team Friday, saying that it is a huge difference from last season.
The win improves Commerce to 1-1 on the season while Leonard falls to 1-1. Commerce will remain on the road next week as they face Community while Leonard travels to face Bonham.