LUFKIN — Paul Kennedy, welcome to the playoffs.
The Palestine senior running back scored six touchdowns and Leon Mickens added three more as the Wildcats outlasted Silsbee 63-42 Thursday night at Abe Martin Stadium in the Class 3A-Region III, Division I, bi-district playoff game.
“This was a big team win for us,” Palestine head coach Glen Tunstall said. “Both teams battled for the whole game and it was like a prize fight.”
Kennedy, who was making his first playoff appearance, threw the biggest punches in the game, rushing 21 times for 138 yards and five touchdowns. He also added a receiving touchdown.
“We were sort of joking with Paul before the game to get ready for the big show,” Palestine offensive coordinator Tommy Allison said. “He really stepped up and played a great game.”
Palestine (8-2) trailed Silsbee (4-5) 21-20 at halftime, but in three plays, the Wildcats took the lead when Devin Stephens found Mickens for a 44-yard touchdown pass as Mickens got loose behind his defender and made the catch in the end zone to give Palestine a 27-21 lead.
“Leon is so tough to cover one-on-one and he made some great catches tonight,” Allison said.
But the Palestine lead quickly vanished as Silsbee returned the kickoff to the Palestine 34-yard line and quarterback William Harper, on the keeper, went 34 yards for the touchdown, giving the Tigers a one-point lead.
But the Wildcat offense would not be outdone. Palestine put together eight plays, including a 25-yard run by Stephens, to get to the Tigers’ 7-yard line.
On third-down-and-2, Stephens faked the handoff to Trevlyn Reed and then ran the option, pitching to Kennedy at the last second, who looked to be stopped at the 5-yard line, which would have been close to a first down, but Kennedy would not be stopped, muscling his way into the end zone for the 7-yard score, giving Palestine the lead 34-28.
“PK is the kind of guy if you give him any hole, he will blow it up,” Palestine offensive lineman Mark Harcrow said. “We came out in the second half and did what we knew we had to do to win this game.”
The Palestine defense, which had its struggles against Silsbee, made a play when needed as James Stubblefield recovered a fumble on the Tigers’ next possession on Silsbee’s 42-yard line.
The combination of Reed, Stephens, Kennedy and Jacobi Jackson running the football got Palestine down to the 1-yard line and Kennedy put the final touches on the drive with a touchdown giving Palestine a 41-28 lead.
“Our offensive line had a tremendous game,” Allison said. “They were loading the box and we were still able to run the football which is a credit to the big guys up front.”
However, Silsbee would not go away. The Tigers moved the ball down the field on a 37-yard pass from Harper to Terrance McCarter. Then Rocky Calhoun did the rest picking up 19 yards and then scoring on a 13-yard run to start the fourth quarter and cut the Palestine lead to 41-35.
The Wildcats, who scored on every possession of the second half, moved the ball back down the field, thanks to a 35-yard reception by Kevin Swanson on third-and-7.
Then on third-and-13, Stephens looked to pass and then pitched the ball forward to Kennedy, who broke free for a 25-yard touchdown off the shuttle pass. Palestine then made it a two-touchdown game when Reed took the option into the end zone for the two-point conversion.
“We never quit in the second half,” Harcrow said. “Our coaches kept us up at halftime and we knew we could get the job done.”
However, Silsbee did not quit either as the Tigers marched down the field on a 14-play drive, finished with a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Harper on fourth down.
But the drive took over six minutes, forcing Silsbee, who trailed 49-42, to attempt an onside kick with 2:19 left to play and that is when the fun started.
The onside kick did not go the required 10 yards when a Silsbee player touched the ball, but it did not matter as Mickens knocked it out of his hands, picked up the loose ball and returned it down the sideline for a 48-yard touchdown to give Palestine a 56-42 lead.
“When he caught it I just punched it out of his hands and saw it rolling on the ground,” Mickens said. “I picked it up, looked up and saw the end zone.”
After Palestine stopped Silsbee three-and-out on the next possession, Kennedy put the finishing touches on the win when he broke through the middle of the field for a 35-yard touchdown run.
“PK ran tough tonight and you could tell he wanted to be in the playoffs and he wanted to win,” Mickens said.
Kennedy gave Palestine a 13-7 lead in the first quarter when he scored on a 23-yard run and a 1-yard run.
The first touchdown run came on third down when he took the handoff on a sweep, his blockers sealed the edge and Kennedy got down the sideline for the score.
On the next possession, Mickens caught a 43-yard pass from Stephens, on third down, to set up first-and-goal at the 1 and Kennedy leaped over the pile for the score.
Silsbee regained the lead when Calhoun, who had three touchdowns, scored on a 4-yard run in the second quarter.
After the teams traded possessions, Palestine converted on three first downs, including a 15-yard shuttle pass to Reed and a 24-yard pass to Mickens, to get the ball inside the 10-yard line.
Two plays later, Stephens threw the lob pass to Mickens, who went over the defender to make the 10-yard touchdown catch, giving Palestine a 20-14 lead.
Mickens had five catches for 130 yards while Stephens was 11-of-15 passing for 223 yards.
However, Silsbee responded near the end of the first half when on third-and-20 Harper found Whinton Morrisey, who battled two Palestine defenders for the ball, for a 33-yard touchdown reception down the middle of the field as Silsbee went into the locker room with a 21-20 lead.
Notes: Palestine will be back in Lufkin at 7:30 p.m. Friday for the Class 3A-Region III, Division I, area playoff game. The Wildcats will play the winner of West-Orange Stark and Huffman-Hargrave, who play at 2 p.m. Saturday in Conroe. ... Mickens’ kickoff return is the third for a touchdown this season by Palestine. Montrell Johnson and Jacobi Jackson have the other two. ...Palestine scored on nine of its 12 offensive series.
LUFKIN — Paul Kennedy, welcome to the playoffs.
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