PARK HILLS – The Central defense tightened three separate times in the red zone to deny St. Clair points during the football season opener Friday night.
But the retooled Bulldogs delivered crucial scoring drives near the end of each half, and prevailed 17-14 in methodical fashion after comfortably handling the Rebels at home last August.
Junior Lance McCoy rushed for 97 yards on 12 carries, and three other St. Clair runners tallied at least 60 behind a line that excelled despite replacing four starters from a nine-win squad.
Landen Roberts extended a 10-7 advantage on a 6-yard run up the middle with 2:02 remaining after St. Clair (1-0) converted first downs from a pair of improbable situations.
Quarterback Dalton Thompson ran for 10 yards while needing nine to move the chains. McCoy broke two tackles to gain 33 more after a holding penalty left the visitors with 2nd-and-24.
Central (0-1) tried to rebound from the crushing sequence, and drew closer on a 4-yard touchdown run by sophomore Dayshawn Welch after he galloped 27 three plays earlier.
Ruger Sutton recovered the ensuing onside kick amid celebration by the Rebels with 55 seconds left, but officials ruled that the ball had not traveled the necessary 10 yards before being initially touched.
Welch accumulated 107 yards on 15 carries, and energized the home fans with his speed not only on the opening kickoff, but also during a successful opening series.
Central senior quarterback Dylan Corcoran and his receivers struggled to connect in key situations, netting minimal positive yardage until their final offensive possession.
Sutton made a leaping 22-yard catch down the left sideline to set up the final score by Welch after Corcoran had completed three short screens to finish 4-of-12 overall.
St. Clair picked up its first two points on a safety as an errant snap sailed through the Central end zone out of punt formation. The visitors would secure their first lead just before halftime.
After converting on fourth-and-1 from their own 30, the Bulldogs struck gold on a fourth-and-9 rollout as Thompson found Roberts behind the secondary for on a 43-yard scoring pass.
Once heavy rain and lightning delayed the second-half kickoff for nearly an hour, St. Clair kept possession for nearly seven minutes out of the break after converting another fourth down from its own 42.
But the Rebels managed to hold as linebacker Gage Manion dropped a runner shy of the mark on fourth down from 15 the Central. He made a similar stop in the first quarter.
Central avoided trouble once again when Ethan Gammon made an interception that followed a timely sack by Blake Bolin and Hunter Francis.
Corcoran helped the field position battle with three solid punts, but the Rebels could not move the ball with consistency after taking an early 7-0 lead.
Welch had his 99-yard kick return negated by an illegal block downfield, but provided a 38-yard scamper that enabled Manion to punch across from the 1.
St. Clair immediately threatened to match the Rebels, but McCoy was stripped by Darantae Martin at the 9-yard line before Braydon Scherffius recovered the fumble.
Manion appeared poised to increase a 7-2 edge when he spun through a couple of hits and broke away from the opposing defense. But after adjusting his facemask mid-stride, he lost control of the ball and St. Clair secured a key takeaway.
Francis made several tackles and fellow defensive lineman Nate Gremminger registered a sack for the Rebels, who will host Class 4 power MICDS next Friday.