Football: Slippery, sloppy second half dooms Pioneer in pivotal loss to Bedford

Friday night’s game was a tale of two halves for Pioneer.

The Pioneers excelled in the first half, racking up 243 total yards of offense and scoring four touchdowns to lead by a touchdown at halftime.

In the second half, Pioneer’s efforts were undermined by sloppy play in all three phases of the game, including defensive penalties and a key muffed punt that led to the go-ahead touchdown in Pioneer’s 42-28 loss to SEC Red Division foe Temperance Bedford on a rainy night at Pioneer’s Hollway Field.

“We gave them a couple of first downs; we had a stop and gave them the ball on a muffed punt,” said Pioneer head coach Bell Bellers. “We had a couple of dumb penalties that gave them first downs when they had it third-and-long. You put yourself in tough positions, that’s the outcome you’re going to have.”

The loss drops Pioneer to 4-3, meaning that it will have to win its final two regular-season games, both on the road, to guarantee a playoff bid.

Bellers said the team would be in ‘playoff mode’ for its final two regular season games, starting next week in its game at rival Saline. Despite the loss to Bedford, Pioneer (3-1 SEC Red) would still clinch a share of the SEC Red Division title if it beats Saline.

Pioneer has not won any share of the SEC Red Division title since 2012.

“We’re taking it as it is, it’s essentially a playoff game,” Bellers said. “We have two games left; we want to guarantee ourselves a spot in the playoffs. We’re going to prepare our butts off, get these guys ready, and give everything we’ve got.”

Pioneer’s offense scored on all four of its offensive possessions in the first half Friday against Bedford.

After linebacker Owen Aldridge intercepted a pass from Bedford’s quarterback, thwarting Bedford’s opening drive which was threatening to score, the Pioneers opened the scoring. Pioneer drove the ball into Bedford territory after two receptions by receiver Ali Fisher.

Two plays later, Pioneer quarterback Conor Easthope threw deep left, and Fisher came down with the jump ball over a Bedford defender, and pulled away from the defender, scoring a 38-yard touchdown. Kicker Tierney Fraidenburg’s extra point was good, giving Pioneer a 7-0 lead with 4:24 remaining in the first quarter.

Pioneer’s lead would not last long.

Bedford’s winged-T offense, known for its dominant ground attack, gave Pioneer’s defense fits all game. Bedford needed only two running plays to get into Pioneer territory, and on the third play on the drive, running back Christian Brown broke to the right side, found a seam, and ran down the sideline untouched for a 48-yard touchdown. Brown would score five touchdowns on the night for the Mules. Degan Garcia’s extra point knotted the game 7-7 with 3:09 remaining in the first quarter.

Pioneer strung together a 13 play, 72-yard drive to score its second touchdown of the game.

On the ninth play of the drive, facing third down in Bedford territory, Easthope took a huge hit to make a play. Showing no fear of the oncoming Bedford rush, he stood in the pocket and delivered a pass to receiver Geffen Peterson-Sand in between two defenders for a 28-yard first down deep into Mules’ territory. Four plays later, one play after Easthope avoided a tackle in the backfield and scrambled for a first down, Pioneer running back Kenny Atkins ran the ball into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown.

Fraidenburg’s extra point gave Pioneer a 14-7 lead with 10:28 remaining in the second quarter.

Pioneer’s defense had a chance to stop Bedford on Bedford’s next drive, but Brown took the pitch and ran 27 yards up the middle for a first down deep into Pioneer territory. Three plays later, Brown scored his second touchdown of the game on a 3-yard rush. Garcia’s extra point tied the game once again. The score was 14-14 with 7:02 remaining in the first half.

Pioneer needed only three plays to reclaim the lead.

On the second play of the drive, Atkins found a hole on the right side, and carried the ball 21 yards into Bedford territory. The Mules were also assessed a personal foul penalty on the play as a Bedford defender hit Atkins late out-of-bounds, putting the ball at Bedford’s 34-yard line. The Pioneers found the end zone on the following play as Easthope hung in the pocket and delivered a perfect pass to a wide open Peterson-Sand over the middle for the score. Pioneer led 21-14 with 6:41 remaining in the first half.

Bedford tied the game with an 8 play, 78-yard scoring drive that was capped with a 13-yard touchdown run from Brown, but Pioneer again quickly regained the lead with its fourth touchdown of the first half in the final minute.

Pioneer was threatening deep in Mules’ territory after three plays and a pass interference penalty on Bedford. Pioneer capitalized on the next play. Peterson-Sand made a highlight reel, diving catch in the end zone, hauling in an Easthope pass for a 31-yard touchdown. Fraidenburg made her fourth extra point of the game, giving Pioneer a 28-21 halftime lead.

Pioneer looked to extend its lead to two scores on its first drive of the second half, and drove the ball into Bedford territory. But the Mules’ defense came up with a big stop on fourth down, as Easthope’s pass hit a defender’s helmet and fell incomplete.

Bedford took over at its own 43-yard line after the turnover on downs. Pioneer’s defense had an opportunity to get off the field on third down, but Brown converted the third down with a 24-yard run into Pioneer territory. Pioneer was also assessed a personal foul on the play, moving the ball to Pioneer’s 14-yard line. Four plays later, running back Logan Hullibarger scored a 2-yard touchdown, tying the game 28-28 with 4:59 remaining in the third quarter.

Pioneer nearly reclaimed the lead right back, but a deep pass attempt for Fisher was slightly under thrown, which allowed Bedford defensive back Mitchel Dunson to bat the ball away with no harm done. Pioneer was forced to punt the ball back to Bedford.

Pioneer’s defense came up with a stop after defensive back Joe Daily broke up a Bedford pass, forcing a punt. Pioneer muffed the punt, however, after the ball took a bad bounce for Pioneer, hitting their returner, and Bedford recovered the fumble. The Mules took over at Bedford’s 28-yard line after Pioneer was assessed a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct after the punt.

Pioneer’s defense made a costly mistake, when, after nearly recovering a Bedford fumble, was assessed a second unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Instead of Bedford facing a third-and-long, the penalty gave the Mules an automatic first down at Pioneer’s 12-yard line. Four plays later, Bedford took its first lead of the game, on a 3-yard touchdown run by Brown up the middle, converting a fourth-and-1. Garcia’s extra point made the score 35-28 Bedford with 10:02 remaining in the game.

Pioneer moved the ball into Bedford territory after two runs, but missed another chance to score when a pass that would have easily been the game-tying touchdown slipped out of Peterson-Sand’s hand in the pouring rain that made consistently moving the ball on offense more difficult in the second half. Easthope was sacked on the next play, and Pioneer was forced to punt.

Bedford all but sealed the game on its next play. Brown took the pitch and looked to be stopped in the backfield by Pioneer, but he bounced twice, broke free, and ran 76 yards for a touchdown, increasing Bedford’s lead to two possessions. The Mules held a 42-28 advantage with 6:54 remaining in the game. Brown finished the game with 329 rushing yards on 31 carries with six total touchdowns.

Pioneer had a chance late to cut Bedford’s lead to one score, but another drop by Pioneer forced a fourth down, and Easthope’s pass in the end zone was intercepted. Bedford was able to run the clock out.