Guzman’s all-purpose performance fuels Bulldogs past Tigers: Senior scores game-clinching TD on 49-yard punt return
     2012-10-05      By Terry Gaston   
Photo by Ken Kurtz/Spectrum Photo Gering senior James Guzman (No. 32) is ready to plow through a Hastings challenger on Friday against the Tigers at Memorial Stadium. The Bulldogs defeated Hastings 16-13. 
For the Gering football team’s first two scores Friday night, senior James Guzman was just the warm-up act at Memorial Stadium.

On the Bulldogs’ final, game-clinching score in their 16-13 comeback victory over Hastings, however, Guzman was at center stage.

Guzman capped a night of 202 all-purpose yards with a 49-yard punt return for touchdown, leading the Bulldogs to a win that broke a two-game losing streak and left Gering at 4-2 in preparation for its Twin Cities archrival game Friday against 6-0 Scottsbluff at Memorial Stadium.

How key was Guzman’s performance, especially on special teams? His 119 return yards helped negate Hastings’ advantage in total offensive yards of 331 to 216, and two Gering turnovers.

“Our kids didn’t quit, they didn’t lay down, they kept fighting for the G tonight and I’m proud of them,” Gering coach Jimmie Rhodes said. “We got a win and we’re back on track.”

Guzman’s first touch of the night was on a 20-yard return of the opening kickoff. He ran for 9 yards on the drive’s three plays, but the Bulldogs had to punt.

Hastings had its own all-purpose weapon in senior quarterback Tyler Ripperger, who rushed 20 times for 173 yards — 22 more than Gering’s total ground yardage — and passed for 43 more yards on 5 of 7 completions.

“To be able to play against a veer, midline option team and only have three days to prepare for it, our kids did a phenomenal job,” Rhodes said. “You have to be assignment sound and you have to tackle.

“That guy is a good football player,” Rhodes said of the quarterback, the son of Hastings coach Rick Ripperger. “He’s a coach’s kid and you can tell.”

Ripperger had five carries of at least 14 yards, including a 69-yard gain — reverted from 75 after an illegal block penalty. He gave the Tigers a 6-0 lead on a 24-yard run with 9:12 left in the second quarter. Hastings senior Michael Sadd might have felt that way after his extra-point kick bounced off the right upright.

Guzman, who had 83 yards on 14 rushes, then started his contributions to all four Bulldog scores. He returned the ensuing kickoff 50 yards to the Hastings 35, where Sadd redeemed himself by saving what otherwise could have been a touchdown.

Guzman said he learned a great deal about the Hastings kick coverage unit on that return as well.

“I saw the outside linebackers crash to the right in the middle, so we had iso-right and I just ran to the left,” Guzman said. “We knew we had to pick it up, so I got the team motivated and started it off with that.”

Gering got as close as the 19 but were backed up to the 27 by penalties and lost rushing yards. Still, junior Gage Smith avoided a blocked-kick attempt and got the Bulldogs on the board with a 44-yard field goal with 6:53 left before halftime.

Ripperger opened the Tigers’ next drive with a 39-yard gain, but Gering defenders Dylan Wetherington and Elija Timblin teamed up to sack him and force a punt.

Guzman pulled in the kick at the 17 and was off to the races again, running up the middle for 54 yards before Ripperger stopped him at the Hastings 29.

“I saw what they were doing and I just read it out at the beginning,” Guzman said. “The wings were crashing on the outside and no one was in the middle, I just read it and ran with it.”

Smith then turned a zigzag run into a 29-yard touchdown to put Gering ahead 9-6 with 4:05 left in the half, but his extra-point kick was blocked.

The Bulldogs forced a three-and-out, after which the Tigers wisely punted the ball away from Guzman. Gering drove 38 yards to the Hastings 20.

Bulldog junior quarterback Dillon DeMott tried a third-down pass to senior Zac Bibb, but Tiger junior cornerback Anthony Julian — who had strong coverage on Bibb during the second quarter — read DeMott’s pass, intercepted it and ran 75 yards to the Gering 13.

Sadd tried a 30-yard field goal that would have tied the score at halftime, but the kick sailed wide left, leaving Gering ahead 9-6 at the break.

Hastings drove 32 yards to the Gering 48 after the second-half kickoff, but Ripperger was stopped cold on fourth-and-1. The Bulldogs advanced only as far as the Tigers’ 42 and had to punt, and the Gering defense returned the favor by forcing a Hastings punt from its own 16.

Tiger sophomore Brandon Menke’s punt went into Guzman’s hands at the Hastings 49. Guzman found his opening again and this time earned his own touchdown with 3:58 left in the third quarter.

“I saw an open lane in the middle and I just took it,” Guzman said.

“That was a momentum thing for us,” Rhodes said of Guzman’s touchdown return. “For us to be in a tight game and have a lead, and for that to happen and just completely blow the doors off like he did, he made a couple of big shakes got a big block at about the 10-yard line and then he walked in.

“He has waited his turn, he has played behind some good kids, and tonight he showed that he deserves to play.”

Despite Guzman’s game-breaking punt return, Rhodes said the wear on the defense on consecutive series took some toll on the Bulldogs.

“That punt return actually kept out defense out there another series, so that really gassed us,” Rhodes said of the Tigers’ back-to-back possessions, the second of which lasted just five plays but kept the Gering defenders on the field for another 2-1/2 minutes.

The Bulldogs responded by driving the ball 38 yards on 11 plays to the Hastings 20 but turned the ball over with 7:04 remaining in the game.

Ripperger broke loose on second down for what was going to be a 75-yard touchdown, except one of his teammates committed an illegal block at the Gering 6-yard line.

On the next play, however, the Bulldogs had it back after Tiger junior Cody Hoffa missed an option pitch and Gering senior Collin Havengar recovered the loose ball.

Hastings got the ball back with 4:25 remaining after forcing a Gering punt and capitalized on a 29-yard combination option play on which Ripperger ran about 15 yards and then pitched back to trailing tailback Tyce Matthias for a 29-yard gain to near midfield.

Eight plays and a Bulldog interference penalty later, Ripperger broke loose for a 14-yard touchdown with 47.5 seconds remaining, and Sadd’s extra-point kick pulled the Tigers to within three at 16-13.

But Gering’s “hands team” was ready for the ensuing onside kick, and Bulldog senior Walker Britsch pulled in the ball to put Gering into victory formation.

Smith’s touchdown run contributed to his 44-yard rushing total on nine carries to follow Guzman’s 83-yard effort. Senior Jake Rexus added 13 yards on three carries and DeMott had 11 yards on eight rushes.

DeMott completed just 7 of 18 passes for 65 yards with the late second-quarter interception. Britsch had four catches for 36 yards, while senior Austin Ferguson had two receptions for 23 yards and junior Gage Winkler caught a 6-yarder.

Rhodes said the Bulldogs got to celebrate the win until Saturday morning, when preparations for their attempt to avenge last year’s 17-0 loss at Scottsbluff would begin.

And Guzman, while enjoying hugs from family and friends after his all-purpose performance Friday night, agreed.

“We’ve just got to prep well, just got to play the power game and get off focus for the week,“ he said.

Kickoff for the Twin City rival game at Memorial Stadium is at 7 p.m.

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