BUFFALO GAP — Buffalo Gap’s playoff aspirations are alive and kicking.
Tanner Rivenburg ran for one touchdown and passed for two more Thursday night, sparking the Bison to crucial 37-12 victory over the Fort Defiance Indians in the Shenandoah District and regular-season football finale for both schools.
The victory, which came on the heels of back-to-back losses, virtually guaranteed the Bison a spot in next week’s Region 2B playoffs.
Buffalo Gap athletic director Andrew Grove said after crunching the numbers that he is 99 percent certain the Bison moved into the fourth and final position, dislodging Clarke County, and will travel to top-seeded Stuarts Draft for a first-round rematch from the 2019 postseason. Clarke County played only four regular-season games because of health and safety protocols, and two of those games were against winless Madison County, which hurt the Eagles’ power ratings in the end.
The Bison and Cougars battled to a 3-0 halftime score during their regular season clash before Draft unleashed 27 unanswered points over the final 24 minutes for a 30-0 win.
“We came out and took care of our side of things,” said Bison head coach Brad Wygant before he was fully aware his team had likely clinched a playoff berth. “We knew it was going to be really close to get in.”
Gap (3-3, 2-3) turned three defensive stops on fourth down into a trio of touchdowns, two in the first half that led to a 16-0 advantage at the break, which ended in a heavy snow squall that turned the area into a snow globe with the gusty, biting wind.
“Defense drives the offense and vice versa,” Wygant said. “We stole the momentum on those three stops and turned them into points. That pushes you ahead for success.”
The Bison’s first stop came when Fort was stopped a yard short on fourth-and-2 at Gap’s 42. After Rivenburg broke off a 20-yard on second down to Fort’s 20, Bryce Hildebrand swept the right side from 6 yards out four plays later. Curtis Lowe ran in the two-point conversion for an 8-0 lead with 3:05 left in the first quarter.
Fort (1-5, 1-4) went for it again on its second possession, but a mishandled snap on fourth-and-5 lost 3 yards to Gap’s 40. Rivenburg ripped off another 20-yard run on first down to put the ball at Fort’s 40. On second down, Rivenburg rolled to his right and flipped a short pass in the flat to Lowe, who did the rest by weaving through the defense for a 40-yard touchdown. Lowe converted his second two-point conversion run, giving the Bison a 16-0 lead less than three minutes into the second quarter.
Besides the TD pass, Rivenburg rushed for 105 yards in the first half on 13 carries.
“We had a lot of unforced errors,” Fort head coach Dan Rolfe said. “We had several penalties that put us behind the chains. It is a lot easier to call plays when you are in front of the chains. Give Gap credit for making the stops.”
The Indians finally found some offensive rhythm to begin the second half, taking nearly six minutes off the clock in driving 63 yards. Trevor Bartley finished the 11-play series with a 2-yard run, and a 16-6 deficit at the 6:08 mark.
The Bison pushed the advantage to 22-6 by taking the ensuing kickoff and marching 74 yards in nine plays. The series was kept alive when Fort was flagged for encroachment on fourth-and-1 at Gap’s 35. Rivenburg’s 23-yard bolt for the score came with 1:15 left in the quarter.
Gap’s third fourth-down stop came after no gain on a fourth-and-3 at the Bison’s 23. While the Indians couldn’t seem to convert fourth downs, Gap used a 10-yard gain by Rivenburg on fourth-and-4 to keep the 13-play series alive. Rivenburg finished it by hitting Hunter Campbell on a 13-yard strike with 4:05 remaining.
The teams exchanged touchdowns within a span of 10 seconds to finish the regular-season scoring. After Jeffry East had a 6-yard TD for the Indians, Cory Conner went up the middle from 34 yards for Gap. Jackson Ingram, fresh up from the jayvee team, plowed over for the two-point conversion, capping the 37-12 final.
“We treated the whole week of practice as a playoff game,” Wygant said. “Our preparation and focus was sharp all week. We showed a lot of grit coming back after the last two weeks.”
The season didn’t turn out the way Rolfe had anticipated, but he was glad a season was played for the kids.
“This is by no means an excuse, but we started several guys that had never played football, especially on the lines.” he said. “The short season didn’t give us a lot of time to fully work with them. This is a really tough district to be learning on the fly. Everything is the district starts up front.
“We treated the season like spring football,” Rolfe said. “We got a lot of guys experience, which will prove beneficial in the fall when we hopefully will be back to a near-normal routine. With the inexperience we had on the field, I was glad for the short season so those guys didn’t get whipped over a full 10 weeks. That could have done more harm than good.”