MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The MRA football team enjoyed an entertaining Thursday night at Dave & Buster's about 90 miles north of here in Birmingham.
The fun and games carried over into the Patriots' season-opener against out-matched Bessemer Academy some 24 hours later at the Cramton Bowl.
MRA jumped out to an early lead and never looked back, cruising to an impressive 47-6 victory over the Rebels in the SECIS Football Classic. The Patriots scored touchdowns on their opening six possessions in building a 40-0 lead every bit as lopsided as the score indicated.
Coach Hebert Davis' squad dominated on both sides of the ball from the outset, opening the 2019 season in convincing fashion. MRA out-gained Bessemer 417-129 in total yards. The Patriots had 317 of those yards by halftime while the starters were still in the game. Meanwhile, over half of the Rebels' offensive output came in the second half mostly against MRA's reserves.
Bessemer's lone points came courtesy of a 10-yard touchdown run with just under four minutes remaining in the third quarter. The clock ran continuously without stoppage in the second half, the seventh time in the Patriots' last 14 games dating back to last season.
"I saw a lot of good things tonight," said Davis, who earned his 50th victory at MRA in the first game of his sixth season. "Everybody got to play, too, which is a good thing. We had a good time last night (in Birmingham), so it made for a fun trip all around. I thought we got a little better tonight. We also got a game under our belt already, and most people can't say that. Hopefully we can continue to get better each week."
The capital city of Alabama has been good to MRA in recent years. In 2016, in this same event, the Patriots waxed Valwood School (Ga.) 34-2. So, in two trips here Davis' squad has won by a combined margin of 73 points.
MRA got off to a slow start in that Valwood game a few years back, trailing 2-0 after the first quarter. That was far from the case on this night, as the Patriots scored the first of their seven touchdowns on the third play of the game. Quarterback Philip Short connected with Justin Williams on a 28-yard scoring strike just over one minute into the game and the rout was on.
That pass was a precursor of things to come as Short and Co. found the end zone on their first six possessions. The senior signal-caller completed 12 of 14 passes for 215 yards and four touchdowns – all in the first half. Two of those scoring passes went to Williams, the other two to Russ Sceroler. It was easy pickings for Short, last year's league Offensive Player of the Year, who had his choice of open receivers nearly every time MRA elected to pass.
The Patriots' revamped offensive line performed well, giving Short ample time to throw and paving the way for 121 rushing yards, as well.
"The O-line did a great job, all the receivers ran good routes and did a great job of getting open, and Coach Davis called some great plays . . . everything was working in our favor tonight," said Short, who has now thrown for over 3,200 yards and 38 touchdowns in 14 career starts since arriving at MRA. "We came out ready and focused. We wanted to make a statement in our first game, and I think we were able to do that. We've been putting in a lot of hard work, and you saw the results of that hard work tonight."
Short's scoring passes went for 28, 32, 62 and 16 yards. He watched from the sidelines in the second half as his backup, freshman Clayton White, enjoyed the first varsity action of his young career. White did his best Short imitation on the first play of the fourth quarter, throwing an 81-yard touchdown pass to newcomer Kinsman Pace.
"Like I said the other day, he's the best long ball thrower I've ever coached in my 20-plus years," said Davis, referring to Short. "He does a good job with the deep pass. He made good decisions for us tonight while he was in there. I think he was 100 percent tonight on all of our RPO (run-pass option) stuff and that's a good thing . . . that's a lot of what we do. It was good to see him come out and have a good start like that. He's got a lot of talent, and he's a good kid. We're glad to have him for sure."
Davis actually called a running play on two of the passes that went for touchdowns. Each time, Short and his intended receiver noticed the secondary was out of position and opted to eschew the run call in favor of a pass.
"I looked at Philip and he looked at me and we gave each other a little motion," Sceroler said. "Nobody was out there so we went with the passing game and I got a couple of touchdowns out of it."
Said Williams: "We've got a really good quarterback. Most of the time he's going to give you a good ball, and he was on target again tonight. We get open, Philip puts the ball there and we score."
It's a formula that seems to work pretty well. Bessemer certainly had no answers. The Rebels, members of the Alabama Independent School Association, have been really good in recent years, winning eight Class AAA championships since 2002. However, they lost 17 seniors from last year's State runner-up team, along with 10 more players who departed following spring practice. Bessemer went into Friday's season-opener with only nine seniors, and returned only six starters – three on offense, three on defense – from a year ago.
"(Bessemer) had a lot of new faces, and they looked confused at times," Davis said. "Their coach told me some of their guys had only been out there a few weeks. That's usually not a good thing, especially against an up-tempo offense like ours. It was a typical MRA offensive performance tonight. And a lot of that credit goes to those guys up front. I thought our O-line did a great job. That's the best they've played up to this point. We've got to get better there, but we definitely saw some improvement. We know we can throw the ball up and down the field, but we need those guys to protect and be good in the run game, too."
Speaking of the run game, newcomer Tyler Latham made his presence felt in his MRA debut. The Starkville Academy transfer had scoring runs of 11 and 14 yards in the first half, demonstrating why the coaching staff was so high on the sophomore prior to the start of the season. A.J. Hasley drew the start at running back. The junior had 63 yards on eight carries, including a 29-yard scamper early in the second quarter, helping set up Short's fourth touchdown pass.
Latham was also pressed into duty at cornerback, along with sophomore Cam Covey as MRA was without its two starting cornerbacks. Drew Peacock and Hayes Puckett, who both started a year ago as sophomores, were out with injuries. Their absence wasn't a problem on this night, as defensive coordinator Danny White's crew performed well.
MRA forced a fumble on Bessemer's first possession, leading to Latham's first score. It marked the 80th takeaway by the Patriots' defense since White's arrival. Those takeaways have led to 147 points in those three-plus seasons. Safety Sam Polles, wearing No. 13, looked a lot like, dare we say it, Ridge Futral, who led the Patriots in tackles a year ago wearing that very number. The new-look defensive front of Brandan Butler, Logan Barber and Donovan Hasley also exceeded expectations, providing plenty of pressure on the quarterback throughout the game. Newcomer Willie Latham, Tyler's older brother, also delivered a couple of big hits from his linebacker position.
On a night filled with positives, there were a few negatives. The special teams, namely kick coverage, weren't great. "Lord have mercy we've got to get better there," Davis quipped. In addition, linebacker Stone Blanton was lost to an arm injury five minutes into the game and did not return. Blanton missed the majority of last season with a similar injury. "You play this game you hope you can stay healthy, but sadly injuries do happen," Davis said. "Hopefully we can get Stone back soon. You never know with those things. We pray that he'll be alright."
Ideally, Davis would've preferred a little tighter game, too.
"Condition-wise we probably would've liked to see some of our guys play longer," he said. "That's a negative for us there. We needed more reps. The reason you play this game is to get more reps and to get in better condition. We've got some tough games early in our schedule that we want to get ready for. We didn't get that accomplished tonight, but I'm never going to tell my guys to hold back. We did a great job of coming out and executing early."
MRA will make its home debut next week when it hosts Washington School on Friday night at Patriot Field. It marks the first game of a three-game homestand for the Patriots, who were undefeated at home a year ago.