MRA Races Past Parklane

McCOMB – There’s no question MRA’s passing game has been its bread and butter offensively all season. Quarterback John White and star receivers Davis Dalton and Street Toler have torched opposing secondaries, helping the Patriots light up scoreboards across the state.

But man can’t live by bread alone, right?

MRA turned to another source of sustenance here Friday night, namely its running game, and the results were substantial and succulent. Downright delectable, really. The Patriots rushed for a season-high 234 yards and five touchdowns en route to a 41-7 victory over Parklane.

“We actually talked about that on the pregame show, how we wanted to get better in the run game,” MRA head coach Herbert Davis said. “I felt like we’ve been getting better there the last couple of weeks. We’ve been fundamentally better when we’ve run the ball lately, and I think you saw some more of that tonight.”

Indeed. MRA’s talented and deep stable of running backs was on full display, with Tylor Latham and D.J. Gainwell leading the way. The duo combined for 124 yards and four touchdowns, with each scoring twice. Latham scored on a 16-yard run in the first quarter and added a 5-yard scoring run in the second quarter. Gainwell, meanwhile, had an 11-yard scoring run in the first quarter and a 10-yarder in the fourth quarter. Fellow running back Quincy Phillips had the Patriots’ other rushing touchdown, a 4-yarder just before halftime.

For the first time this year, White, who has thrown for over 3,100 yards and 33 touchdowns, did not throw a touchdown pass. In fact, all five of the Patriots’ touchdowns came via the ground. The other came courtesy of a 34-yard interception return by Under Armour All-American linebacker Stone Blanton late in the first quarter. Latham had one run of 45 yards, J.J. Latham had one run of 38 yards and Phillips added a 24-yarder as the Patriots averaged 8.6 yards per carry.

“They went to a three safety look and were basically daring us to run,” Tylor Latham said. “Our offensive line threw back the defensive line so it was pretty easy to navigate through it.”

Two-time reigning MAIS Class 6A champion MRA improved to 8-3 overall and 4-0 in conference play. The Patriots have won seven straight since a 1-3 start heading into next week’s regular season finale against Hartfield. A win in that game would give Davis’ squad the top seed and bye for the upcoming playoffs.

Parklane dropped to 3-7, 0-4.

MRA is 38-1 in its last 39 games against MAIS competition. The Patriots are 27-3 in their last 30 games overall, and have won 44 of their last 50.

Parklane has defeated MRA only once over the course of the last two decades. It was obvious early on the Pioneers weren’t getting win No. 2 on this night. The Patriots jumped out to a 20-0 lead in the first quarter, and led 34-0 at halftime. The Pioneers’ lone touchdown came on a 89-yard kickoff return down the left sideline by Kaden Iupe with seven minutes remaining and MRA ahead 41-0.

MRA had scored 50 or more points three straight games and likely could’ve done the same for a fourth straight. However, Davis elected not to play some of his offensive stars in the second half, including White, who completed 9 of 13 passes for 157 yards in the first half before giving way to backup Ethan Mallett.

MRA finished with 434 total yards, while Parklane had 168. Those numbers aren’t all that shocking considering the Patriots’ offensive prowess this season and how well the defense has played during the current seven-game winning streak. However, when one does a deep dive into those 434 yards, it’s a different story. MRA actually had more rushing yards than passing yards in a game for the first time this season. In addition, the play-calling diet was a balanced one with 234 rushing yards on 27 carries and 200 passing yards on 26 attempts.

Davis craves and loves that type of balance, but it hasn’t always been easy to come by this season. MRA has run the ball well at times, but not as consistent as Davis would like. The Patriots’ previous season-high rushing total of 200 yards came in a win at Natchez Cathedral in Week 2. They also ran for 176 yards in a win at Simpson and 168 in a home win over Jackson Academy. On the flip side, there was the minus 27-yard rushing performance at Pulaski (AR.). The Patriots also managed only 88 rushing yards in a win at Raleigh and 61 in a win at Jackson Prep.

After losing three starters along the offensive line from last year’s championship team – all three weighing in over 300 pounds – there figured to be some growing pains this season. And that’s been the case. It has been a work in progress, for sure. But, the core group of tackles Jimothy Lewis and Rush Bland, guards Corey Watkins and Cole Parker and center Mason McCrory have made strides as the season has progressed. Aiden Sullivan has rotated in along the right side, and Robert McCraney has also been in the mix.

McCrory and Bland were the returning starters. Lewis and Watkins are both sophomores and Parker is a junior who hadn’t seen significant playing time before this season. While MRA's offense will never be tagged with the ground-and-pound moniker, it has shown that it can, at times, have success on the ground behind an improving unit led by assistant coach Kenny Williams.

“That’s the headline right there, the fact that the offensive line has gotten better,” Davis said. “They’ve gone from blowing assignments and not being sound technique-wise to now kind of putting it all together.”

Said Latham: “We’ve got a whole new offensive line basically so we had to figure some things out. We’ve ended up changing some of the run schemes to better suit the offensive line so it’s made things easier for them.”

This season, MRA is averaging 307.3 yards per game through the air compared to 124.8 yards on the ground. The gap between passing yards and rushing yards hasn’t been as significant as of late, however, as the Patriots have nearly 500 rushing yards combined over the course of the last three games.

That’s good news for MRA, not-so-good news for opposing defenses.

“If people see that we can run the ball, it keeps them from dropping (back) too many on us,” Davis said. “We’re back to where we can run the football a little bit, so they have to kind of pick their poison defensively which is where we want to be on offense . . . like last year.”

The running back by committee approach has certainly paid dividends. While MRA doesn’t have one back with eye-popping numbers, it does have depth at that position. Quality depth. Phillips, a freshman, has 54 carries for 318 yards and seven touchdowns. Tylor Latham has rushed for 308 yards on 50 carries to go along with five touchdowns. J.J. Latham has 307 yards and eight touchdowns on 53 carries. And Gainwell has 110 yards and four touchdowns on 30 carries. So, those four have combined for 1,042 yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground.

All four are capable of catching the ball out of the backfield, as well, serving as an extension of the running game. Phillips had one reception for 46 yards Friday.

“They all have their strengths,” Davis said. “They all give us a burst, and having that many allows them to be fresh when they come into the game. That shows, especially in the second half at times.”

The Latham brothers also start on defense, making their offensive exploits all the more impressive. Latham had a pair of interceptions against the Pioneers.

“They beat me on a double move early in the game so I knew they were going to come back to it,” Latham said. “When their guy stuck the post I just stayed outside and the quarterback basically threw it right to me. They ran the same play twice, plus I was able to pick up the signal on the sideline.”

The Patriots’ other interception was turned in, somewhat surprisingly, by Blanton. It marked the first time he returned an interception for a touchdown in his high school career. Speaking of wheels, huh?

“I actually predicted it,” Blanton said, with a big grin. “Thursday in practice I had two picks, and I told Coach (Hayden) Davis that I was going to get a pick in the game. Bennett (Cloud) told me they were running a lot of whip routes, so I knew he was coming back in after he looped out. I just watched the quarterback’s eyes, went there, picked it off and went to the house. I was getting into that end zone. It was pretty awesome.”

Hartfield is 8-1 overall and 3-1 in conference play following Friday’s 22-17 come-from-behind victory at Jackson Prep. The upstart Hawks scored 15 points in the final three minutes, then stopped Prep a yard short of the goal line on the last play of the game to secure the win. Hartfield’s lone loss this season came to Jackson Academy, 21-17.

“We’re looking forward to it after all these pretty easy games we’ve had the past few weeks,” Latham said. “Hartfield has a good team . . . I thought they should’ve beat JA . . . so it should be really competitive.”

Said Davis: “It’s going to be a big game. Every game we play from here on out is going to be big. We’ve got to continue climbing and continue getting better.”