Patriots Lose Opener

     MADISON - An altogether new Delta variant invaded these parts Friday night in the form of star dual-threat quarterback D.J. Smith and the rest of the Greenville Christian Saints.

Two-time reigning MAIS 6A state champion MRA had no answer, and as a result, its plans for a successful season-opener were ruined.

Smith was sensational, accounting for 526 total yards – 312 passing, 214 rushing - and seven touchdowns as defending Class 3A state champion Greenville Christian raced to a surprising 58-32 victory over the out-matched Patriots before an overflow crowd of 2,200-plus at steamy Patriot Field.

“They could’ve scored 70 if they had wanted to,” MRA coach Herbert Davis said. “We deserved that. They physically whipped us. They made plays and we didn’t. They have a very good team. They’re very athletic. They’re going to beat a lot of people this year.”

Smith, receiver Chris Bell (5 catches, 110 yards, 3 TDs), running back Marlon Palmer (14 carries, 103 yards, 2 TDs) and the rest of his teammates – all from the 662 area code – served notice early, scoring 28 points in the first 14 minutes of the game en route to the lopsided victory. MRA, playing without Under Armour All-American linebacker Stone Blanton (still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery), didn’t give up more than 26 points in a game all last year, and only gave up 20 or more points twice. The Saints amassed 684 total yards (372 rushing, 312 passing) on 80 plays. A year ago, the Patriots allowed an average of 200 yards and 10 points per game.

MRA, sporting snazzy new all-red uniforms, kept pace early with three touchdowns of its own – all three coming on touchdown passes from quarterback John White to receiver Street Toler – and actually led 18-16 with just over five minutes remaining in the first quarter. However, Greenville Christian retook the lead a few minutes later – the fifth lead change of the opening quarter – and never looked back.

The Patriots turned Smith’s lone mistake of the evening, a red-zone interception by defensive back J.J. Latham, into a touchdown (White to Latham 12-yard pass) late in the second quarter to pull to within three, 28-25, at halftime. The Saints pulled away for good in the second half, outscoring MRA 30-7 over the last 24 minutes to hand the Patriots their first loss since Sept. 27, 2019 (at Briarcrest, TN) and just their second loss in the last 33 games against MAIS competition.

MRA saw its 19-game winning streak and 22-game home winning streak come to a crashing halt despite big nights from White, senior receivers Street Toler and Davis Dalton (8 catches, 113 yards) and senior running back Tylor Latham (7 carries, 64 yards). White, a highly-regarded freshman transfer from Winona Christian making his debut in a MRA uniform, completed 21 of 35 passed for 310 yards and five touchdowns. He was picked off three times.

Three of White’s touchdown throws were to Toler, who had scoring grabs of 49, 54 and 20 yards to cap three straight drives on the Patriots’ first three possessions of the game. Toler got behind one-on-one coverage on the first, reeled in a tipped pass on the second, and somehow made a one-hand snag near the goal line on the third. The three touchdowns matched his season total from a year ago.

“Street had a great game,” said Dalton, a Southern Miss commit. “I expect him to have a big year this year . . . he may even lead us in touchdowns and receiving yards. He’s that good, plus teams are probably going to be double-teaming me and that’s going to open things up for him.”

Friday’s game was rematch, if you will, of last year’s Overall basketball championship game. MRA won that game in overtime, in near miraculous fashion, over Greenville Christian despite a huge game from Smith. Yes, the same Smith. He didn’t leave any room for opposing heroics this time, though. When he wasn’t passing the Patriots silly, he was churning out big chunks of yardage on the ground.

Smith connected with Bell on a 52-yard touchdown pass on the opening play of the game, and tossed a 51-yard touchdown pass to Will Riley on his final pass of the evening with six minutes to go. In between, he threw touchdown passes of 25, 11 and 58 yards and scored on runs of 5 and 39 yards.

No. 10 looked like a perfect 10 in his senior debut after accounting for 3,484 yards (2,581 passing, 903 rushing) and 40 touchdowns (30 passing, 12 rushing) a year ago as a junior after transferring from Greenwood High. He is being recruited by Southern Miss, Arkansas State and Louisiana Monroe among others.

“He’s a heckuva quarterback,” Davis said. “We certainly couldn’t slow him down.”

Smith is one of 17 starters returning from last year’s team which won its last 11 games, the last 10 after picking up several transfers from Greenwood High, including Smith. The Saints added Bell, a transfer from Yazoo City who has committed to Southern Miss, joining the likes of cornerback Jaterrious Elam (Mississippi State commit) and linebacker J.D. Stewart (Southern Miss commit) among others. That blend of experience, athleticism, size and talent proved too much for a MRA team minus Blanton and looking to replace a plethora of starters from last year.

“We haven’t been on this end of the stick for a while,” Davis said. “I still think we have a good football team. We’ve just got to find a way to be more consistent on offense . . . we hurt ourselves a lot tonight with mistakes . . . and we have to get more physical. We missed way too many tackles. We’ve got to get back in here Monday and get to work.

MRA finished with 446 yards total offense (324 passing, 122 rushing) on 76 plays. A large portion of that came in the first half as the Patriots had 317 yards (249 passing, 68 rushing) at halftime. MRA’s lone touchdown of the second half came on a 9-yard pass from White to junior receiver Rivers Godwin.

“Things didn’t go well for us in the second half,” Toler said. “They definitely out-played us. We couldn’t get much going on offense in the second half. They made a few adjustments in their coverages and were able to slow us down. I still think we’re going to be okay. We’ve just got to figure some things out.”