Danny's Dogs Dominate Defensively
McCOMB – Facing a 4th-and-26 from his own 18-yard line early in the fourth quarter here Friday night, Parklane quarterback Conner Wilson, who doubles as the Pioneers’ punter, dropped back deep to punt.
As soon as he took the snap, Wilson knew he wasn’t going to have time to get the punt off without it getting blocked. A quick look to his left revealed a couple of incoming white-jerseyed MRA defenders just a few feet away, so he took off to his right. There, in a matter of seconds, he ran into a darting Sam Polles, who tackled Wilson for a 10-yard loss.
There was simply nowhere for Wilson to go with the football. The walls caved in around him, as they did on many occasions on this early October night. The hard-hitting, blitz-happy MRA defense dominated throughout - as has been the case much of this season - spearheading an otherwise rather non-descript 41-12 road victory.
Coming off an eye-opening 51-17 victory over defending MHSAA Class 4A state champion Corinth a week ago in North Mississippi, and with upcoming games against Hartfield and Jackson Prep looming, the reigning MAIS Class 6A champion Patriots were far from their best on this early October evening. “We’ve still got a lot of things we need to work on,” said MRA coach Herbert Davis, who was less than thrilled with his team’s performance. “We did some good things, we just weren’t very consistent.” Still, the Patriots drove away with a convincing 29-point victory in hostile territory to remain undefeated.
That says a lot about this MRA team, and program, when you win by four touchdowns at Parklane, traditionally a very tough place to play, and depart somewhat disappointed. The bar, and the standard of excellence, has indeed been raised under Davis, who has lifted the program to unparalleled heights during his seven-year tenure. The Patriots, 6-0 overall and 2-0 in conference play, extended their winning streak to 13 games dating back to last season. They have now won 30 of the last 33 games overall and 25 of their last 26 against MAIS foes over the past three seasons heading into Thursday’s homecoming game against Hartfield.
While the offense has been a wee bit inconsistent at times this season, one constant has been Danny White’s defense. Danny’s Dogs did their thing once again against Parklane, with the first unit allowing only one touchdown – a 56-yard pass from Wilson to Jordan Anthony midway through the third quarter. By then, the Patriots had built a 27-0 lead on were well on their way to yet another blowout victory. The Pioneers’ other score came on a 35-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Jeremiah Dillon on the final play of the game against the Patriots’ reserves.
Minus those two plays, MRA held Parklane to only 106 total net yards. The Pioneers managed just two net yards rushing on 29 attempts. Yes, you read that right. No. that is not a typo. Two net yards rushing. Parklane did find some success through the early on, as Wilson was able to connect with his speedy wideouts Anthony and Dillon on a handful of mainly short passes. However, White made the necessary adjustments, and the Patriots’ defense rolled with them, resulting in yet another dominant performance.
“It’s a blue-collar, undersized group of guys who like to take on people,” White said. “And they play really hard.”
That was evident again Friday night. Parklane’s first five possessions, and six of its first seven, all ended in punts. The Pioneers ran out the clock prior to halftime on the other. Following Wilson’s first touchdown pass, Parklane went three-and-out on its next possession, and were forced to give the ball over on downs on the next two. On the aforementioned drive in which Wilson had to eat the ball on the punt attempt, the Pioneers ran the ball for two yards on first down, then the next three plays resulted in minus 28 yards. All were rushes.
“We gave up that one touchdown pass (first unit), but other than that the defense dominated all night long again,” Davis said. “(Defense) has been really good all year, and we’ve played some pretty good teams, too. I knew coming into this season we were going to be good in the secondary and at linebacker, I just didn’t know about the defensive line. I thought if the defensive line could come through for us, we could be really good on that side of the ball and they have.”
Consider these numbers through six games:
· The MRA defense is allowing just 10.8 points per game
· 198 yards per game – 99 rushing, 99 passing
· Nine touchdowns allowed (only six by the first-teamers) on 70 offensive possessions
· Nine forced turnovers
· 14 scoreless quarters out of 24, including seven straight scoreless over one two-game span. One shutout.
· 30 drives have ended in punts; 17 after 3-and-outs; and 16 over on downs
· 76 of 322 offensive plays defended have resulted in zero or negative yardage. That number goes up to 85 when factoring in turnovers, and 111 when incompletions are added. So, 34.4 percent of the opponents’ plays have resulted in zero/negative yardage.
In an age where it’s common when offenses put up video game type numbers, MRA’s defense is a bit of a throwback. The Patriots have a nice blend of size and speed, although it is a unit built more on speed than size. “Fast, physical ballhawks is how we like to define ourselves,” White said. “We want to play fast and physical.”
The Patriots’ defense did just that against Parklane, flying around to the ball and delivering one bone-jarring hit after another. It all starts in the middle with Stone Blanton, who is rated as one of the top junior inside linebackers in the country. No. 10 had a team-high 11 tackles Friday, including one of 7.5 sacks. But there’s so much more. “I have a lot of good players around me,” Blanton said. We have so many athletes that can play pretty much anywhere on the field. They’re awesome to play with. And Coach White does a great job of putting each of us in the right position to maximize our abilities and make plays.”
As Davis alluded to, MRA figured to be good on the back end of the defense, where there was plenty of proven experience in the secondary and at linebacker. Cover corners Tylor Latham and Cam Covey are usually left on islands in man-to-man coverage, and that frees up safeties Hayes Puckett and Drew Peacock to help more in the run game. Converted defensive backs Rayf Vinson and Sam Polles, both experienced playmakers, flank Blanton on the outside at linebackers. Up front, Jude Aldridge and Cade Carter have pursued opposing quarterbacks with reckless abandon from their respective end spots. And Thomas Adams and Will Hornback have more than held their own inside. In addition, Alex Hillhouse has been a sparkplug in passing situations.
Barring unforeseen injuries, the defense should in theory get even better with the return of linebacker Braeden Watters, who is slated to return this week after sitting out the past three games following a foot injury early in the Jackson Academy game. He will bring more brawn to the unit. The same can be said for defensive end Triston Hayles, who hasn’t played defense the past couple of weeks after being pressed into service along the offensive line because of injuries to George Drake and J.P. Wilkie. When those players return, Hayles is expected to see more time on defense.
“Our defense is really good,” said MRA standout receiver Davis Dalton. “And I should know because I go up against them every day in practice.”
The way the defense has performed to date is even more impressive considering the fact that White lost six starters off last year’s unit, including the entire defensive front. In stepped Aldridge and Co. “We had our doubters coming into the season, mainly because we lost so much on defense,” Aldridge said. “But at the same time we had a lot coming back. (Defensive line) knew we had to step up and work hard in the offseason to get ready because we were the least experienced group coming back. And that’s what we did. We’ve played well as a unit, and things have gone well for us up to this point.”
Added Aldridge: “It’s a lot of fun to play in Coach White’s defense. He allows us to have fun. We have people running to the football on every play. We really enjoy it.”
MRA, averaging 36.5 points per game, has outscored its opponents 141-34 in the first half. That said, the offense has likewise played complimentary football.
Following Vinson’s 58-yard return on the opening kickoff, quarterback Zach Beasley (17-of-29 201 yards, 2 TDs) connected with Dalton (6 catches, 73 yards) from 22 yards out to stake MRA to a 7-0 lead :17 seconds into the game. Tylor Latham’s 14-yard scoring run midway through the second quarter pushed the Patriots’ lead to 14-0. “It was good to get that first one,” Latham said, with a big smile. MRA took a 21-0 lead into intermission as Vinson hauled in a 7-yard touchdown pass from Beasley with just :26 seconds left in the first half.
J.J. Latham (11 carries, 64 yards) made it 27-0 MRA early in the third quarter, scoring on a 5-yard run. Five plays later, the first of Wilson’s two touchdown passes helped Parklane cut the deficit to 27-6. The score stayed that way until early in the fourth when Vinson, a Navy commit who also had 10 tackles, added an 8-yard touchdown run to push the lead to 34-6. It was Vinson’s team-leading 10th rushing touchdown of the season.
MRA’s final points of the night came courtesy of a 37-yard touchdown pass from McKinnley Woodward to Rivers Godwin with just over four minutes remaining. The 41 points were more than enough to get the job done - and should be on most nights – especially as good as the Patriots are defensively.
“We know we still have a lot of improving to do,” Blanton said. “There’s no such thing as a perfect game. We were wanting the shutout tonight, but it didn’t work out that way. It’s time now to focus on the next game, and that’s something we’ve done all year. That and having fun.”