China Spring coach Mark Bell leveled with his team in the halftime locker room.
Although Fairfield led the Cougars by a touchdown, Bell knew all was not lost for his squad if they could change the momentum in the second half.
Thanks to linebacker Brayden Mathis’ third quarter interception, that’s what China Spring did as it claimed a 21-14 homecoming victory on Friday night at Cougar Stadium.
“I told the kids at halftime, ‘The good thing is we still have a chance, we have the second half to try to regroup,’” Bell said. “I was really proud of our kids the way they regrouped, came out and got after it.”
Mathis stopped a Fairfield drive into China Spring territory midway through the third quarter when he intercepted Eagles quarterback Chad Rushin at the Cougars 40 in the middle of the field.
Then Mathis found a lane to the home sideline and turned up field as he broke away from the Fairfield pursuit. Eagles running back Kadarrius Walker made a touchdown-saving tackle at the Fairfield 14.
“They’re a great team,” Fairfield coach John Bachtel said about China Spring. “We knew they were going to come back. We told our guys if we don’t turn the ball over it’s going to be a great game. We had one turnover, they won by one touchdown.”
Brayden Mathis can’t sit still.
China Spring (4-1) had to pull off a fake field goal on fourth-and-three from the Fairfield 7, but Cougars holder Payton Spell deftly grabbed the snap and darted to the Eagles’ 2.
On the next play, Mathis finished what he started by rushing two yards for the game-winning touchdown with 5:45 left in the third quarter.
Earlier in the second half, China Spring running back Tyrick James exploded through a hole and ran 62 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 14.
James rushed for 136 yards on 17 carries.
China Spring running back Erik Hart twisted an ankle during pregame and carried only four times for eight yards, all in the first quarter.
Both teams struggled to find their footing on offense for most of the first quarter until Fairfield broke through with a 52-yard scoring drive.
Rushin connected with Kolbe Branch over the middle for an apparent 52-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the march, but it was negated by an illegal shift called on Fairfield.
Though it didn’t count, the big play seemed to ignite the Eagles. Rushin passed to Avery Archibald for a 21-yard gain into China Spring territory, then Walker took a sweep left 19 yards to the Cougars’ 11.
Walker finished the march with another sweep left, this time for a four-yard touchdown and the initial 7-0 lead with 30 seconds left in the opening period.
The Fairfield defense forced China Spring to go three-and-out on its next possession and Walker went back to work.
This time the Fairfield running back fought through a tight hole in the middle of the offensive line, kept his feet and burst through the Cougars’ secondary for a 41-yard touchdown run.
Behind by two touchdowns early in the second quarter, China Spring answered with a 69-yard touchdown drive.
Cougars quarterback Cayden Johnson tossed a screen pass to K.J. Peoples for 13 yards to ignite the drive and move China Spring into Fairfield territory. Johnson then began spreading the ball around to his receivers as the Cougars pecked their way toward the Eagles goal line.
Johnson ran for 12 yards on a first-and-goal play from the Fairfield 14, setting up his one-yard touchdown plunge two plays later. Johnson’s rushing touchdown cut the Eagles lead to 14-7 with 5:53 left in the second quarter.
The Fairfield defense stymied the China Spring offense for two more possessions before the half and the Eagles took the 14-7 edge to the break.
Fairfield outgained the Cougars in total yards, 154-141, in the first half.
“We were kind of out of sorts,” Bell said. “The kids were in disarray a little bit. I give all the credit to Fairfield. They certainly came out and put the whoopin’ to us in the first half.”
Fairfield coach John Bachtel said he is seeing sparks from his Eagles (2-3) after a challenging nondistrict slate.
“We’re that close to being good, I mean really good,” Bachtel said. “The good thing is we played a tough schedule, we’ve seen a lot of good competition. China Spring is a great football team.”