HATTIESBURG – It took Pierce Smith more than a few seconds to shake off an extremely hard hit he took during MRA's first series of the third quarter here Friday night. Several plays later, he was the one lowering the boom, initiating the contact and running through a would-be PCS defender on a quarterback run.
The Patriots ended up turning the ball over on downs a few plays later when Smith failed to make a proper read on a play and threw the ball in the wrong direction. He completed the pass mind you, he just didn't throw the football where MRA coach Herbert Davis wanted him to, and Davis let Smith hear it in a not-so-flattering tone when he trotted off the field.
Smith, surrounded by a few of his teammates along the visiting sideline, shrugged off the mistake and the criticism that went along with it. He managed a smile, even a brief chuckle. The life of a quarterback. Comes with the territory, right? As Paul Harvey used to famously say, if you only knew the rest of the story.
Heck, Smith was just happy to be IN the game – a game MRA went on to win handily, 42-14, putting the finishing touches on an undefeated 11-0 regular season, the first for Patriots since 1992. Even if it meant being sore afterwards, even if it meant having the coach yell at him.
You see, Smith started a year ago as a junior and was expecting to be the starter again this season. That was before newcomer Philip Short unexpectedly arrived on campus. Short quickly impressed, and eventually took Smith's job, relegating Smith to a backup role for this his senior season. He's played some, but not a lot, mostly in mop up duty. While Short has played a starring role in what has been a magical season up to this point for the Patriots, Smith has had to mostly watch from the bench.
Tough? You betcha. Would've been tough for anyone. That's why, on a chilly, breezy, hot chocolate type of late October night here in the Hub City, Smith savored his cup of coffee in the limelight. Dirty uniform and all.
"After that first hit I got up and was like man, that's a new feeling, I haven't felt that in a long time," Pierce said, just moments after joyfully posing for a few postgame pictures with his parents and girlfriend. "It was a little different from sitting on the bench all year. It felt good, though, not going to lie. If felt good to get back in the groove a little bit. Football is all about fun, and if you're not playing it's not really fun. Even with the ups and downs tonight, it was fun being in the game. I had fun."
Smith, whose dad Chris played quarterback at Oklahoma State during the Barry Sanders era, entered the game midway through the second quarter with MRA leading 24-0. He completed three straight passes, the last one being a 19-yard touchdown to Justin Williams. It was his fourth touchdown pass of the season, and first since the St. Stanislaus game over a month ago.
He finished the night 9 of 15 for 158 yards, and looked good doing so. He completed a 34-yarder to Rayf Vinson, who added yet another diving catch to his already-extensive highlight reel. And he also had another impressive downfield throw, one hauled in by Landon Fulcher covering 36 yards. By the end of the night, he had nearly matched his season totals.
"It was good to see Pierce out there on the field," said MRA receiver Landes Purnell, Smith's best buddy on the team. "He always looks forward to games like this so that he can go in. This will be the end of his football career, like most of us, so whenever he does get in he tries to soak it all in and try his best to remember what it was like last year. Overall, I think he's handled the whole situation really well considering the circumstances. Pierce took it pretty hard when Philip came in, and took it even harder when Philip was named the starter, because all along he thought this was going to be his year. The good thing is he didn't quit. He knew he could still contribute to the team, and we know he can still help us. He wanted to play and contribute to the team in whatever way he can."
Pierce, and the rest of the backups, finished what Short and the rest of the starters started on this night against out-matched PCS, 1-10, which started nine freshmen and played many more. The last time MRA was here, it suffered a 45-44 loss in three overtimes. The drama level never came anywhere near that game this time around as the Patriots dominated from the outset. It wasn't a matter of if, but by how many.
The final numbers read like most of MRA's games this season. The Patriots eclipsed the 40-point mark for the 10th consecutive game, they won by 28 points which is just a shade under their average margin of victory for the season, they totaled 488 yards of total offense (322 passing, 166 rushing), and they outscored the Bobcats 34-0 in the first half. MRA has now outscored its opponents a staggering 347-76 in the first half through its first 11 games.
MRA's defense actually forced three-and-outs on PCS's first seven possessions of the game before the Bobcats earned their first first down on the game in the waning seconds of the first half. The Patriots first team defense, like it has been all season, was superb, limiting PCS to a net of minus 6 yards in the first 24 minutes. The Bobcats had 16 rushing attempts, netting minus 12 yards and were 1 of 10 through the air for six yards.
PCS opened the second half with an onside kick, recovered it, and scored six plays later for its first of two second half touchdowns. By then, MRA, with a sizeable lead in hand and in an effort to keep as many of its starters as healthy as possible with the playoffs looming, had long since turned the game over to its reserves. That included the likes of Trey Zito, who like Smith, made the most of his playing time. The sophomore running back totaled 102 yards on 11 carries, including a 3-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter – his first of the season.
"It was good for those guys to get a chance to play; I wanted to get them in earlier," Davis said. "We played a lot of young one tonight, and I saw some good things, especially from Zito. It has been a great year, we've been blessed. We were able to come out and get a win, and everybody is going to walk out of here. That's key. Hopefully, now we've got a chance to heal up some next week, get better, and start preparing ourselves to hopefully win a championship. We are going to have to turn it up three or four notches starting next week, I know that. I really am proud of this group, though. It's a great group of guys. It has been a fun group to coach.
"Now, we've just got to finish," Davis continued. "This game is behind us, the regular season is behind us, it's all about the playoffs now. If you can't get up for the playoffs we need to go home early."
MRA welcomes a much-needed and well-deserved bye week this upcoming week. The Patriots will entertain the winner of the Oak Forest-Parklane quarterfinal game in the semifinals the following week at Patriot Field. Win that game, and it's onto the championship game.
MRA finished 8-5 a year ago with Smith in the starting quarterback role, falling one game short of the title game a year ago after reaching that plateau in each of Davis' first three seasons. And, it's not as if Smith, who transferred from Madison Central, played poorly. He completed 134 of 232 passes for 1,856 yards and 13 touchdowns, and for the most part was efficient running the run-heavy offense. He's proven to be a much-improved signal-caller this year, as evidenced by his performance against PCS. Just not as good as Short, who gifted with a stronger arm, has lifted the Patriots' passing game to another level.
The junior completed 11 of 14 passes for 164 yards in less than a half against PCS, including a 21-yard touchdown pass to Ridge Futral. He also added a 2-yard scoring run before giving way to Smith. On the season, Short has thrown for 2,467 yards and 28 touchdowns. Those numbers would no doubt be even better had he played more – he sat out the second half, or at least most of, in more than half the Patriots' games because off all the blowouts.
"I will say when Philip got here it really elevated everybody's game, including mine," Smith said. "At the beginning, I really didn't like him that much . . . you've got a new kid coming in and taking your spot. You don't want to be friends with him. As the year went on, you see that he deserved the spot. He won it, and I'm just going to roll with it and support him any way I can."
Short knows what it's like to lose a starting position. He started at QB for Northwest Rankin a year ago before being pulled in favor of another player three-fourths of the way into the season. That's why he sought out another school, eventually landing at MRA. He's been a great pickup to say the least, even though it has meant a much lesser role for Smith. Short, as he has all season, was among the loudest of those cheering for Smith on Friday night.
"Pierce and I have developed a good bond," Short said. "We're both very competitive. He pushes me to get better every day, and I push him to be better every day. We talk every day. It's all love at the quarterback position. I support him in everything he does. When he's in I give him full support, and when I'm in he gives me full support. I love to see him get in and sling the ball around. I told him earlier this week in practice this was his week, get out there and lead the team like you're capable of. We didn't miss a beat when I came out."
The quarterback position is near and dear to Davis' heart. He coached his son, Hayden, now the starting quarterback at Co-Lin. And he gives individual lessons to quarterbacks off all ages on the side. It's his thing. Perhaps that's one reason he started to tear up when a reporter asked him to speak about Smith following the game.
"It was tough going in at the beginning of the year to tell him that he wasn't going to be the starter," Davis said. "I'm not going to lie, I got emotional. I knew how hard he had worked for it. What a life lesson he's learned, though. Just seeing how he has handled it there's no doubt in my mind he'll be a successful person in life. I couldn't be more proud of that young man, to show the character he has and what the team has meant to him this year. He easily could've gone a lot of different directions, but he chose to hang in here and be a great teammate when his number was called. I have the upmost respect for him."
PS, have you ever thought how crazy/eerie it is that Smith and Short share the same initials? Two young guys, from two different backgrounds, from two different prior schools, through fate have had their paths intersect at 7601 Old Canton Road. They now share the same position, the same school, and the same common goal – celebrating a championship in a few weeks. What a ride it's been.
"If you look at last year, we lost most of the big games, but this year we've won all of them," Smith said. "Winning those games, and pulling them off the way we did, was just crazy. We're hoping to do it again."