Patriots Win 8th Straight, Earn Playoff Bye
MADISON – Late in the first quarter, MRA offensive lineman Rush Bland, all 260 pounds of him, fell to the turf here at Patriot Field in a lot of pain. Turns out it was friendly fire, his injured shoulder the result of teammate Tylor Latham hitting him from behind.
Nevertheless, he was hurting. After a short delay, Bland, one of 16 seniors honored on Senior Night, successfully managed to slowly make his way over to the home sideline, albeit a little wobbly, dazed and confused. “Who hit me,” he asked trainer Casee Finnegan.
“I really know what had happened,” Bland said later, with a chuckle.
Opposing teams must feel the same way after facing MRA these days. The high-scoring, hard-hitting Patriots keep piling up win after win, and they keep doing so with relative ease. Coach Herbert Davis’ squad picked up its eighth straight victory Friday night with a 45-23 win over Hartfield Academy in the regular-season finale, wrapping up a fourth straight conference championship and the No. 1 seed and subsequent first-round bye for the upcoming playoffs.
After leading only 14-6 at the end of the first quarter and 17-9 with four minutes, 29 seconds remaining in the first half, MRA rattled off 28 unanswered points to take a commanding 45-9 lead. The Patriots scored 14 points in the final 1:46 of the first half to take a 31-9 halftime lead, then got a pair of touchdowns from John White – one passing, one running - in the third quarter to run away and hide. A fairly close game in the early going was all of a sudden a blowout, much like all of MRA’s games over the last eight weeks.
The Patriots have outscored their last eight opponents 364-88, an average margin of victory of 34.5 points per game. Hartfield got a 84-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Xavier Davis on the final play of the third quarter and a 26-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Reed Jesiolowski to Blake Condon with four minutes remaining to cut the final margin to 22 points. That was the lone completion of the evening for Jesiolowski, who normally plays receiver. Davis also had a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter.
“It feels really good to win that last (regular season) home game, especially with it being senior night,” said MRA receiver Street Toler, a senior. “The defense played great, better than what the final score indicates. The offense started off a little slow, but once we figured it out we got it rolling. It was a great night all the way around.”
Two-time reigning MAIS Class 6A champion MRA finishes the regular season 9-3 overall and a perfect 5-0 in conference play. The Patriots are just two wins away from a third straight state championship and fifth in program history.
Hartfield, playing minus starting quarterback Cruz Garner (injured shoulder), dropped to 8-2, 3-2. The Hawks finish tied with Jackson Academy and Jackson Prep for second place, but won the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed. JA is the No. 3 seed, while Prep is the No. 4 seed. MRA will likely host third-seeded JA in the semifinals two weeks from now with a berth in the Nov. 20 Class 6A championship game at Mississippi College on the line.
MRA improved to 5-0 all-time against Hartfield. The Patriots have outscored the Hawks 223-61 in those five wins.
MRA has won 39 of its last 40 games against MAIS competition, and 28 of its last 31 games and 45 of its last 51 overall entering the much-welcomed bye week. The Patriots will get an off week for the first time this season, a season that started all the way back on Aug. 13. That 1-3 start seems a distant memory doesn’t it?
“I’m real proud of these guys,” Davis said. “We got off to a tough start this season, but we kept working, kept getting better, and found a way to come together as a team and put it all together. We’ve been a on pretty good run since then. Now we get an opportunity to get a little break and heal up some, and hopefully make a run. We’ve done a great job of getting here, but none of that matters now. It’s a new season, we’re all 0-0 and starting over.”
Perhaps it was the breezy, cool conditions, or maybe it was some pre-Halloween hocus-pocus. Who really knows? Whatever the case, Friday’s game featured all sorts of hijinks. Hartfield’s punter totally whiffed on his first attempt, resulting in a turnover and the first of Tylor Latham’s two touchdown runs. He then nearly missed the entire ball again on his next punt attempt, although this time he made just enough contact for a seven-yard worm-burner. In addition, midway through the second quarter all the lights on a certain pole near the Southwest part of the field went out, causing a short delay.
All is well that ends well, however. And, once again, things ended well for MRA. The Patriots finished with 493 yards of total offense and held the Hawks to 148 yards. Quarterback John White and Co. failed to connect on some deep shots early, but he still completed 18 of 29 passes for 258 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown pass to Davis Dalton in the third quarter. The sophomore signal-caller connected with seven different players, with Dalton, a Southern Miss commit, leading the way with seven catches totaling 128 yards. Toler added six catches for 74 yards. After rushing for a season-high 234 yards in last week’s win at Parklane, MRA bested that total by one yard Friday.
Six different running backs had carries, with freshman Quincy Phillips leading the way with 65 yards on 10 carries, including a one-yard touchdown run with :33 seconds remaining in the second quarter to give the Patriots a 31-9 halftime lead. J.J. Latham had a seven-yard touchdown run, as well, as the Latham’s accounted for three touchdowns. White even got in on the act, scoring from one yard out late in the third quarter.
MRA totaled 152 yards on 18 carries in the second half. The Latham brothers, Phillips, D.J. Gainwell and Charles Simpson all took turns running the ball, often finding open seams in the Hawks’ defense.
“I thought we did a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage on offense and defense,” Davis said. “We were physical up front, so I was really proud of that. (Hartfield) is pretty dadgum big. That was key tonight. That’s two weeks in a row now we’ve been good in the run game. As a result of that, we’ve been more balanced offensively. We’ve got a really good group of backs, I’ve been saying that all year. If we can get up like we did tonight, and get folks tired a little bit, that’s when you see us start running the football, too.”
MRA also got a 29-yard field goal from senior kicker Landon McGee early in the second quarter. That was matched by a 25-yard field goal by Hartfield kicker Weston Adcock. Those three points represented the only offensive points produced by the Hawks' offense until the late touchdown pass.
While the Hawks' offense struggled for the most part with Garner at QB, MRA's offense continues to put up big numbers with White at the helm. He has thrown for 3,398 yards and 34 touchdowns while engineering an offense that is averaging 42 points per game. The Patriots have scored 40 or more points seven times and have eclipsed 50 points four times.
Dalton (72 catches, 1,324 yards, 13 TDs) and Toler (50 catches, 812 yards, 9 TDs) have combined for 122 catches, 2,136 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the MRA defense has allowed an average of just 9.4 points per game during the current eight-game winning streak. The Patriots' D has yielded 168 yards or fewer in five of those wins, including the last four.