Gatesville got a big win off the field Friday afternoon, but couldn’t follow it up with a win on China Spring’s home turf.

After the UIL reinstated six Gatesville suspended players, the Hornets ran into a hot China Spring team that rode Cayden Johnson’s big arm to a 43-16 win Friday night.

Johnson threw for three touchdowns and Tyrick James ran for three scores as the Cougars (6-2, 2-1) handed the Hornets (7-1, 2-1) their first loss of the season.

The six unnamed Gatesville players were suspended from action for their involvement in taking performance-enhancing drugs by the District 13-4A executive committee Friday morning in Lampasas. The district committee suspended the Gatesville players by a 3-1 vote with China Spring, La Vega and Lampasas voting in favor of the 30-day suspension from extracurricular activities.

But following Gatesville’s appeal, the players were reinstated just hours later by the UIL State Executive Committee in Georgetown, which cited a lack of conclusive evidence. They will be eligible to play going forward.

When asked if the events earlier in the day were a distraction, Gatesville coach Kyle Cooper said, “Everybody steps out here and plays the game between the white lines. We didn’t get it done tonight.”

The Cougars rolled to a 28-3 halftime lead as they shut down Gatesville quarterback Jett Truss and the Hornets running game. Truss responded with a strong second half and finished the game with 255 yards passing as he hit 16 of 31 attempts. But the first-half deficit was just too large to overcome.

“We just kind of played flat in the first half,” Cooper said. “I told our kids that we hadn’t played that bad of football in a long, long time in Gatesville, Texas. It wasn’t us. They responded very well to that and came out in the second half and gave ourselves a chance to win.”

Johnson was on target most of the night for the Cougars as hit 14 of 21 passes for 192 yards. James ran for 101 yards on 14 carries while Erik Hart rushed for 100 yards on 16 carries.

“I was real proud of our kids,” said China Spring coach Mark Bell. “They worked hard all week and took care of the basics. Cayden (Johnson) did a good job of executing the offense and played very well. I can’t say enough about our defense to hold them to three points in the first half.”

The Hornets got off to a strong start when they drove 45 yards after the opening kickoff to set up David Saldivar’s 32-yard field goal.

But the rest of the half belong the Cougars who rebounded in a major way from last week’s loss to district leading La Vega.

Taking advantage of China Spring’s shanked punt, the Cougars only had to move 32 yards for the first touchdown. After Hart hit the right side for 17 yards, Johnson found K.J. Peoples along the left sideline for a 15-yard touchdown pass. Peoples also ran for the two-point conversion to give the Cougars an 8-3 lead with 2:58 left in the first quarter.

The Hornets moved to China Spring’s 41, but Truss missed a pass to Zach Mueller on fourth-and-5. Once again, the Cougars took advantage of good field position as Johnson hit Peoples along the left sideline for a 48-yard touchdown pass to open up a 14-3 lead with 11:26 left in the second quarter.

China Spring put together its longest drive of the game on its next possession as it moved 82 yards and picked up six first downs along the way.

Johnson got the drive rolling by hitting Steven Russo for 13 yards and then bulling 11 yards for a first down on a quarterback keeper. After Johnson hit James for 11 yards to Gatesville’s 37, Hart sprinted around the left side for 26 yards to the 11.

On the next play, Johnson hit Russo for an 11-yard touchdown pass to push China Spring’s lead to 21-3 with 8:13 left in the second quarter.

Trying to cut into China Spring’s lead, the Hornets tried a fake punt on fourth-and-7 from their own 23. But Derrick Bayer got just two yards to give the Cougars possession at Gatesville’s 25.

“We didn’t get much going in the first half after the first drive,” Cooper said. “We had a couple of poor special teams calls on my part that hurt us in the first half and put our defense in a really bad spot.”

Johnson hit Hart for 23 yards before James drove around the right side for a 2-yard touchdown to propel the Cougars to a 28-3 lead with 48 seconds left in the first half.

The Cougars had two chances to extend their lead at the start of the third quarter. But they fumbled inside the Gatesville 10 and couldn’t take advantage of great field position after stopping a Gatesville fake punt at the 20.

The Hornets finally got their offense rolling when Truss hit Tyler Lewis for 25 yards before finding Bayer deep for 44 to set up Anthony Costas’ 4-yard touchdown run to cut China Spring’s lead to 28-10 with 1:37 remaining in the third quarter.

Truss stayed hot on the next possession when he hit Bayer for 12 and 17 yards before Lewis got loose for a 26-yard catch. Mueller finished off the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run, but Truss’ two-point conversion pass failed with 8:09 left in the game.

Gatesville tried an onside kick but China Spring recovered and drove 46 yards for a touchdown with James finishing it off with a 7-yard run followed by Johnson’s two-point conversion run to open up a 36-16 lead with 4:17 remaining.

Gatesville threatened again but Russo intercepted a Truss pass at the 2 and returned it 83 yards to set up James’ 7-yard touchdown run for the game’s final score with 1:34 remaining.

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