ROUND ROCK -- When Mart won its two state championships in the Rusty Nail era, a stifling defense was the primary reason.
Shiner QB Trevion Flowers passes downfield over Mart defenders in Friday's Class 1A State Semifinal 42-7 loss in Round Rock. Waco Tribune-Herald photos by Rod Aydelotte
That unit hasnít always looked championship-worthy this season, but it showed up in a big way Friday night to help the Panthers have a chance for their second Class 1A Division I crown in three seasons.
DeíNerian Thomas picked off two passes, the second of which he took back 86 yards, and the Panthers limited the vaunted Shiner veer attack to 131 rushing yards in a convincing 42-7 drubbing Friday night at Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex.
"Our defense was unbelievable," Mart coach Rusty Nail said. "On the message boards this week there wasnít a lot of respect because of the points weíd given up. I donít think people realized the offensive teams weíd faced, and our defense stepped up. Defense wins championships, and it won a semifinal championship tonight."
Mart will play in its fourth championship game in Nailís seven years with the school and try to add a third crown at 4 p.m. Thursday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. To get it, the Panthers will have to go through Stamford, which ended Martís season with a 47-28 decision in last yearís state semifinals.
Nail and Mart know the task at hand against Stamford, which advanced to the final with a similar blowout of Italy, 41-8, and theyíre excited for the opportunity, especially since its his first state title game with his sons, Collin and Bryson on the team.
"Weíve got our work cut out for us with Stamford," Nail said. "But itís so special being able to experience this, not only with this team, but with my boys being a part of it."
The Panthers got off to a slow start offensively, but they were unstoppable in the second half.
Thomas did the majority of the work behind an offensive line that was increasingly dominant as the game progressed and finished with 234 yards and four touchdowns on the ground and added 38 more passing yards.
Shiner RB Jacob Stafford is surrounded and brought down by Mart defenders after a short gain.
"It feels good," Thomas said. "We had to rely on our offensive line blocking. They started slow, but they did a good job blocking, and I was able to turn it into touchdowns."
In all, Mart ran up 354 yards of total offense, not bad for a team that didnít pick up so much as a first down until the clock showed less than nine minutes to go in the second quarter.
At that point, Mart trailed, 7-0, on the strength of a 2-yard Trevion Flowers touchdown on a quarterback keeper for the Comanches.
The Panthers had been hurt with a lack of field position and had run only six offensive plays to that point.
But a pair of Thomas 6-yard runs picked up that initial first down, and Quentin Bryant took an inside counter 49 yards to paydirt two plays later to get the Panthers kick-started and even the score.
Later in the second quarter, Thomas made the play that swung the game.
He drifted back in coverage and took the ball away from Jacob Stafford, turning what looked like a sure completion into an interception at the Mart 28.
"The guy I was covering didnít go out, so I dropped back to try and stop the drag and he threw it right to me," Thomas said. "(Stafford) had the ball and I couldnít see it. I just put my hand up, felt the ball and yanked down, and took it away."
The Panthers (12-2) only had 3:15 on the clock, but that was plenty of time. Thomas dropped back at the Shiner 32 and found nobody open. But he saw a crease open up, and blew past everyone to put Mart in front with only 36 ticks before halftime.
The Comanches (12-2) gave themselves a chance to score with a pass from the Mart 12-yard line, but it fell short as the clock hit zeros and sent the game to intermission.
A host of Mart defenders bring down Shiner QB Trevion Flowers after a run up the middle.
When the teams came back out, it was all Mart.
Thomas made it a two-score game with a 50-yard TD run, aided by a clear-out block downfield from DíMarcus Cosby, on the second play of the third quarter.
It was 28-7 when Thomas strolled in from 12 yards on the next march, taking advantage of the left side of the offensive line having completely caved in the Shiner defensive front and capping it with a stiff arm before diving in with 1:39 left in the third.
The game was slipping away from Shiner, and Thomas ended all hope when he snagged a Brady Cejka pass in the open field and snaked around some blocks to the left sideline. From there, it was all speed as he finished off the 86-yard return, and capped his virtuoso performance with a 38-yard sprint to the end zone on his final carry of the night.
"On the second (interception), I caught the ball and didnít know where to go," Thomas said. "I got a few blocks, and that was all I needed."
Shiner threw for 80 yards and reached its own 49 or better three times in the second half but came up with nothing to show for it.
Jason Orts is a staff writer for the Waco Tribune-Herald.
Contact him at 254-757-5714, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
More Photos by Rod Aydelotte from the Waco Tribune Herald
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