By KEVIN THOMPSON
HOLCOMB — For the first 22-plus minutes, the Holcomb Longhorns held a free-scoring Ulysses team to just 7 points.
But it was the final 91 seconds of the opening half that proved their undoing as the Tigers scored twice quickly — via interceptions — on their way to a 21-0 win in Great West Activities Conference action.
For Ulysses, it was the fifth-straight win and fourth straight in the conference. It also means at least a share of the conference title.
For Holcomb, it was a tough loss following two straight solid wins.
As it has been all season, it was the Tigers' running game that led the offense as they gained 284 yards on the ground, including Ian Rudzik's 183 yards on 27 carries to put him over 1,200 yards on the season.
But he had a 440-yard game against Goodland just last week, so holding the sophomore to under 200 was a sign that the Holcomb defense might be what holds Holcomb (3-3, 2-3) together as they head into district play next week.
Scoreless after a quarter, Ulysses got on the board three plays into the second period on Rudzik's 11-yard run.
That looked like all they would get in the half until Tregg Rodriguez won a juggling contest over Brandon Stegman and ran the interception back 35 yards for a score with 1:31 remaining.
On Holcomb's next series, Heath Tucker threw the ball short of his intended receiver into the waiting hands of Chase Rudzik, who ran it back to the 10. Two plays later, brother Ian ran it in for what would be the final score of the game.
It was the type of game Ulysses coach Jason Kenny expected — hard-fought and tight.
"Holcomb's a really good team and we were fortunate to come in here and get the shutout on the road," Kenny said. "I was really proud of the way our defense played, and our offense really ground it out."
Kenny said he challenged his defense before the game to score, and they accepted it.
"Tregg's interception was huge," he said. "He made a heck of a run right after that. Chase's was big, too."
Overall, the Tiger defense came up huge, holding the speed and option game of Holcomb to just 137 total yards, well under half its season average.
The halftime deficit forced Holcomb to throw more in the second half — just as Kenny hoped.
"We want to take away our opponents' running game and throw it on us and try to get some pressure on their quarterback," he said, resulting in three more interceptions in the final half.
Coming on the heels of scoring 75 points last week against Goodland, and knocking off defending state champion Scott City the week before, Kenny likes where his Tigers team is and where they are headed with this winning streak.
"This feels great after losing game one to Liberal, especially coming on the road," he said.
Holcomb, which has built its reputation for much of the season behind its running game with the occasional pass bombs, found itself frustrated against a big and fast Tigers defense.
The Longhorns ran just 18 times and threw 30.
Coach Jerry Johnson praised his defense for keeping his team as close as they did, pointing to a game-opening turnover on downs after Ulysses took over six minutes off the clock on a 13-play drive.
"I can't be more proud of our defense with the way they played tonight," he said. "Ulysses is one of the best teams in the area, and when you play them close to where you have a chance to win. The biggest thing is they came out and didn't let anyone score the second half."
It would have been easy to quit after the two quick plays to end the half, Johnson added, but the Longhorns continued to play hard the second half.
Just too many mistakes on offense kept his team out of sync, he said. To be down just 7 at one point was a great position to be in, but Ulysses capitalized on the turnovers and that forced the offense to change tactics, which caused too many mistakes.
"If anything, our defense should have confidence going into district play and playoffs," Johnson said.
Playing a strong team like Ulysses as well as they did bodes well for Holcomb going into district play, he said.
"I think we're tough. For us to go toe-to-toe with them and get them off the field the way we did shows that we are," Johnson said. "We just had too many drives out there that we couldn't finish off, and we need to change that."
Ulysses (5-1, 4-0) 7 14 0 0 -- 21
Holcomb (3-3, 2-3) 0 0 0 0 -- 0
Uly--Rudzik 11 run (Mendez kick), 11:12
Uly--Rodriguez 35 interception return (Mendez kick) 1:31
Uly--Rudzik 6 run (Mendez kick), :16
Game stats Uly Hol
First downs 17 9 Rushing yds 284 32 Passing 1-2 14-30
Passing yds 1 105
Total yds 285 137
Turnovers 3 6
Penalties-yds 7-60 5-40
RUSHING--Ulysses: Rudzik 27-183, Romero 22-92. Holcomb: Richmeier 4-30.
PASSING--Ulysses: Walters 1-2-1. Holcomb: Tucker 14-30-105.
RECEIVING--Ulysses: Avery 1-1. Holcomb: Rupp 6-30, Sleep 3-17.