ARLINGTON -- Navasota's first state championship football game in 24 years didn't start well, but it ended perfectly.
The top-ranked Rattlers overcame the loss of a key player and some shaky moments early, hitting their stride on the way to a 39-3 victory over No. 10 Gilmer in the Class 3A Division II championship before a crowd of 17,582 at Cowboys Stadium on Friday night.
Navasota finished the season 16-0, answering an early challenge from the Buckeyes with a dominating performance.
Versatile senior Austin Collins helped the Rattler offense withstand the absence of starting running back Xavier Creeks, who broke his leg in a car wreck on the eve of the championship game. Defensive MVP Jordan Wells led a swarming defense that dominated one of Class 3A's highest-scoring attacks.
"It's a great feeling knowing you won a state championship," said Collins, who produced 167 all-purpose yards and scored three touchdowns. "You only get that opportunity once in a lifetime."
Gilmer, seeking its third state title in nine years, finished at 14-2 and with admiration for the Rattlers.
"They're by far the best team we've played this year," said Gilmer quarterback Tanner Barr, who was sacked four times and completed just 5 of 23 passes for 68 yards with a crucial interception.
Despite the lopsided final score, the Buckeyes started much better than the Rattlers. Gilmer put together a promising drive to begin the game before Navasota linebacker Dustin Savensky intercepted a Barr pass. The Buckeyes scored first on a 29-yard field goal late in the first quarter, but at that point the usually potent Rattler offense had been held to minus 2 yards on six plays.
Then Navasota flipped a switch. The Rattlers scored three touchdowns over the next 8 minutes and built a 26-3 halftime lead.
Collins lit the fuse, taking a middle screen pass from quarterback Kadarius Baker and sprinting 51 yards for the touchdown that put the Rattlers ahead to stay.
"After the first two series, I saw the things that I felt like my kids could hurt them with," Navasota coach Lee Fedora said. "We were able to make those calls, and it just started happening. Once you get that energy going, the kids just took off and flew with it."
The Rattler offense soared despite not having Creeks, the team's leading rusher on the season with more than 1,000 yards. Sophomore Derrion Randle and senior Howard Horn filled in admirably, combining for 143 yards with one touchdown apiece.
Randle delivered a 52-yard TD run midway through the second quarter, blasting through the Gilmer defense that the Rattlers caught in a blitz on third-and-12.
"We had two backups that did a great job in Howard Horn and Derrion Randle," Collins said. "For him to break that [52-yarder] as a sophomore and show his speed, that impressed me a lot."
Collins made a lasting impression on Gilmer midway through the third quarter. On the next play after Baker was injured, Collins took a direct snap in the wildcat formation and zoomed 82 yards for a 33-3 lead.
"We had a shot," Gilmer coach Jeff Traylor said. "The quarterback got knocked out and [Collins] went in there. Everybody knew it was going to be a quarterback counter, but we didn't make a play. To me, that was a really big turning point."
Fedora agreed about the importance of Collins' run.
"A.C. has had the flu all week long and not one time did he ever say anything to the coaches," Fedora said. "I watched him today [at the pregame meal], and he didn't eat one bit of his food.
"He started cramping up after that long run. He was over there on the ground, and I went over and told him that I had to have him. He said he was fine."
Navasota's defense was fantastic. Wells, a powerful junior, led the group with 10 tackles, and he had to be good to reach the ballcarrier before linebackers Jake Bauer (nine tackles), Jaylyin Minor (eight) and Savensky (seven).
Solomon McGinty, known better for his exploits at wide receiver, made a big impact on several of his five tackles.
Gilmer came into the game averaging nearly 40 points and 455 yards per game. Navasota limited the Buckeyes to 162 yards and came up with a goal-line stop that derailed Gilmer's comeback bid.
"We won this state championship because of our defense, no doubt," Fedora said. "I think our defense got overlooked all year long."
Navasota's defense was challenged to start the second half. The Buckeyes recovered a daring onside kick to start the third quarter, taking possession at the Rattler 46-yard line.
The Rattlers gave ground grudgingly, making Gilmer use precious time. The Buckeyes converted three fourth downs to gain a first-and-goal but couldn't cover the last 2 yards. Barr was forced to scramble and made a bid for the end zone, but Bauer met him and forced a fumble that went through the end zone for a touchback.
Gilmer got nothing from a possession that took 16 plays and consumed 6:42. After that, just about all the Buckeyes got was grief from Wells and the hard-charging Navasota defenders.
"We couldn't protect," Traylor said. "[Wells] is a fantastic player. He was superior to us. We tried to cut [block] him. We tried to double-team him. We tried to triple-team him. We couldn't stop him."
After the goal-line stand and Collins' long run two plays later, it was just a matter of time until the Rattlers accepted the state championship trophy. They rallied around it near midfield, where McGinty had carried Creeks' No. 8 jersey for the pregame coin toss.
"Xavier told me he was sorry that he screwed this up, to not allow this to affect our players because he felt like he let everybody down," Fedora said. "I told the kids they had to fight for Xavier, and they handled it well. They did a great job."