PARK HILLS – Inexperience along the defensive line presented a glaring area for concern as the Central football team progressed through the preseason.
The level of success or failure from that particular unit on Friday night seemed to parallel that of the Rebels during two very different halves.
Central struggled to finish tackles prior to intermission, but regrouped to allow just 38 rushing yards and four first downs after halftime while avenging its loss to Dexter from three weeks ago.
The second-seeded Rebels earned two crucial takeaways while backed into the red zone, and prevailed 13-6 to deny Dexter a second road upset in the Class 3, District 1 playoff bracket.
Eli Ford had eight tackles plus a fumble recovery, and fellow junior lineman Derontae Martin notched seven stops in a game where each team suffered four turnovers.
Central (6-5) disrupted a fourth-and-2 run short of the marker in the third quarter, and caught lightning from a determined freshman for its biggest offensive play of the contest.
Dayshawn Welch turned upfield on a right sweep, and darted 67 yards for the go-ahead touchdown before Justin Bridges added the extra point with 1:27 remaining in the third quarter.
It was the first carry for Welch since he gained 33 yards on a similar play while running out the clock in the second quarter. He ended with 112 yards on six attempts.
Dexter (5-5) went 3-and-out on its next two series – slowed by a 10-yard sack by Tyler Murray and big tackle in the backfield from Ford – but also held its ground twice after the Rebels crossed midfield.
Corbin Strong rushed 13 times for 98 yards to lead the Bearcats, but lost a costly fumble that senior Tanner Friend recovered after shedding an initial hit with less than four minutes to play.
Central could not convert a late fourth-and-3 that would have iced the outcome, but made one more stand as Dexter was in a hurry with no timeouts.
Quarterback Haden Hillis was perfect on four short passes inside the final minute, but a sack from Nate Gremminger and gang tackle in bounds melted precious time away.
Senior linebacker Evan Sidebottom compiled a team-high 10 tackles, and Will Hopkins chipped in nine tackles while picking up 63 rushing yards for the Rebels.
Gage Manion was mostly held in check with 46 yards on 17 attempts, including separate runs of 16 and 14 yards, but Central still advanced to meet top seed Kennett next week.
Both clubs operated impressively to score on their respective opening drives. The Bearcats received the opening kickoff, and covered 81 yards on 12 plays.
Right tackle Brock Simmons paved the way for physical backs Caleb Hoggard and Strong, who popped a 23-yard touchdown run after Central jumped offside on fourth-and-3 from its 42.
The Rebels answered in far less conventional fashion, moving 68 yards on 14 plays as quarterback Dylan Corcoran connected on his first two passes to Dawson Day and Jake Casey.
Manion moved the chains again with his best scamper of the night, but the Rebels were in danger of stalling when Hopkins could not catch an accurate pass in the end zone.
They lined up in field goal formation on the first snap of the second quarter, but Casey flipped the ball back on a fake to a sweeping Day, who raced to the pylon for a 10-yard touchdown.
A poor snap on the extra point left the score even at 6-6, and it remained there through halftime after the teams alternated four interceptions.
Ernesto Rivera picked off Corcoran twice, including a harmless heave on the last play of the half, but Day tipped and controlled a dangerous deep throw by Hillis earlier in the second quarter.
Dexter threatened to surge ahead before the break as Strong gained 30 yards on a burst and Hoggard added 21 more through the middle.
But Casey attacked from his safety position to drop Hillis behind the line of scrimmage, then swiped a deflected pass in the end zone.
Central wasted an excellent kickoff return across the 50 by Murray to begin the third quarter, and faced unfavorable field position after Braxton Foster recovered a muffed punt for the Bearcats.
The Rebels lost a subsequent fumble at their own 14 after being pinned deep by Rivera, but a botched hand-off moments later was alertly smothered by Ford.
Dexter won the previous meeting against Central 13-7 at home in week 8, and outlasted injury-depleted Ste. Genevieve in triple overtime last week.
Hoggard registered 79 of his 91 rushing yards in the first half of the rematch.
Central attempted a fake punt in the fourth quarter as Corcoran threw the ball instead to Day, but his 58-yard touchdown was negated by an illegal man downfield.
Corcoran was 5-of-9 passing for 40 yards, and added a creative 10-yard scramble for a first down late.