Patriots Bounce Back
NATCHEZ – The offense scored points in every quarter en route to a 50 burger. The defense, with stud linebacker Stone Blanton back in the fold, was much improved outside of one play. Teammates were chasing teammates down the sideline. Head coach Hebert Davis was even spotted whooping it up with his players, bobbing and leading a chant near midfield afterwards.
What a difference a week makes, right? Clearly, the vibe was entirely different for MRA here Friday night in this smallish town set on the Mississippi River compared to a week ago this time in Madison.
After suffering through a disappointing season-opening loss at the hands of uber-talented Greenville Christian in Week 1, MRA bounced back in a major way in Week 2, throttling Cathedral 56-7 on Ken Beesley, Sr. Field inside D’Evereux Stadium.
“Yeah, that’s more like it,” MRA running back/safety Tylor Latham said. “It was good to see everybody having fun again tonight. It felt good to get the win, but at the same time we know we have to move past this one and get ready for next week. It’s going to be a good one.”
Latham, of course, was referencing next Saturday’s 2 p.m. game at Patriot Field against reigning Class 6A state champion Oakland High (TN). The Murfreesboro-based Patriots went undefeated a year ago and defeated Hendersonville 44-7 in their season-opener Friday. They are currently the No. 1 ranked team in Tennessee and are ranked 46th nationally according to MaxPreps after finishing last season ranked 16th nationally by USA Today.
For a little perspective, Greenville Christian, which beat MRA by 26 points, isn’t ranked. The game will be televised on ESPN2 as part of the GEICO High School Football Showcase.
“We’re going to have to take it to another level next week,” Davis said. “They have a running back committed to Georgia and a wide receiver committed to Miami, and those aren’t the only two. They’re good, really good. It’s going to be like a championship week for us in terms of media and things like that. But we don’t need to be worried about all that . . . our guys need to clear the noise. I saw a lot of improvement tonight, but we’ve still got a lot to work on I can promise you that.”
Two-time reigning MAIS 6A state champion MRA improved to 1-1. The Patriots have now won 20 of their last 21 games and 32 of their last 33 against MAIS competition. Cathedral, coached by MRA alum Chuck Darbonne, dropped to 0-1.
MRA finished with 434 yards total offense – 200 rushing, 234 passing. Meanwhile, Cathedral managed only 80 net yards – minus 16 rushing, 96 passing. And 53 of those yards came on one play, a long scoring pass from quarterback Noah Russ to wideout Christian Wright to cut an early 14-0 deficit in half.
It was all MRA after that, as the Patriots reeled off 42 unanswered points against the Green Wave.
“We had a good week of practice . . . the energy was there, the focus was there,” Davis said. “It was a little slow early, but it got better offensively and defensively as the night went on. We scored 56 points, and we were able to hold them to just that one touchdown. So, that was good.”
After allowing 58 points and nearly 700 yards total offense a week ago against defending MAIS 3A state champion Greenville Christian, Davis and his staff decided some changes were in order. One of those was going to a three-man front on defense, with four-star sophomore offensive lineman Jimothy Lewis moving to noseguard. The move proved to be beneficial for the Patriots, who tallied 13 tackles for losses and came away with a fumble recovery and a Pick Six late.
“We tried to use some guys to push things back into the inside and they did a pretty good job of that tonight,” Davis said. “And we changed some coverages, and that helped.”
It also helped having Blanton back. Blanton, an Under Armour All-American linebacker, missed last week’s game as he is still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. He only played the first half Friday, but was still able to make an impact. On one play early in the second quarter, he blew through an open gap and tackled Cathedral running back Cam Turner for a 5-yard loss.
“It felt good to be back out there,” Blanton said. “That one hit felt really good. I was just kind of feeling things out tonight. I should be 100 percent by next week.
“Our practices were much better this week,” continued Blanton. “We did a lot of hitting in pads, and learned how to be more physical. That’s one of the main things we were lacking last week against Greenville Christian. We came out tonight and played much more physical. That’s something we’re going to have to continue to do moving forward.”
Blanton is just one of three returning starters on defense from a year ago.
“It was good to see him back out there for us, no doubt,” Davis said. “He’s knocking some rust off still. We didn’t bring him much tonight, either. But he still made some plays for us. We’ll bring him more, and he’s tough when he comes.”
Quarterback John White completed 9 of 14 passes for 178 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Rivers Godwin on MRA’s second possession. The running game, though, stole the spotlight – namely brothers Tylor (5 carries, 96 yards, 1 TD) and J.J. Latham (6 carries, 32 yards, 3 TDs). Tylor darted his way for a 28-yard score in the first quarter, and J.J. had scoring runs of 3, 4 and 7 yards on three straight possessions to help MRA take a commanding 35-7 halftime lead.
Highly-touted freshman Quincy Phillips (6 carries, 37 yards) also joined in on the fun, scoring his first touchdown (9 yards) in a MRA uniform early in the second half. Same goes for shifty sophomore Charles Simpson, who scored his first varsity touchdown on a 30-yard scamper in the fourth quarter.
Throw Hatcher Swanson into the mix and MRA is deeper at running back than the pre-game line of customers at Fat Mama’s.
“We feel good about our running backs,” Davis said. “They’ve all got different strengths. J.J. is pretty dang good between those tackles. We wanted to get him and Tylor more reps this week than we did last week, and we did that. I like the way J.J. and Tylor are running the ball right now.”
The Latham’s and Co. are working behind an offensive line that includes three new starters.
“The line got a lot of push, so we basically just had to make one man miss and we were able to do that. J.J. is a little faster this year, and he’s stronger than he was last year so that helps him bounce off tacklers.”
After last week, the 49-point victory against an inferior opponent was just what the doctor ordered for MRA. After all, there aren’t a lot of gimmes on the Patriots’ schedule this year. Seldom-used Breck McCalop’s 45-yard interception return in the second half provided the cherry on top. Many of his teammates, some on the field and some who were on the sideline, chased after him in delight as he made his way into the endzone. A big celebration ensued.
“I saw the ball, stepped in front, took it and ran,” McCalop said, still grinning afterwards. “I heard all the guys running behind me. It was hype. That was the best feeling ever.”