AMITE, La. – MRA scored a pair of early touchdowns here Friday night and, at the time, looked as if it would cruise to yet another lopsided victory.
Little did the Patriots know, they would also need one more score, plus a goal line stand, a little good fortune, and another late stop to escape with a hard-earned, physically-demanding 21-7 victory over homestanding Oak Forest in their regular season finale.
"Obviously, looking back at it, those first two scores were huge," MRA head coach Herbert Davis said.
MRA concluded the regular season 10-2 overall, 5-0 in conference play with its fifth consecutive win. The Patriots earned a first-round playoff bye, meaning they will be off this upcoming week prior to hosting the Parklane-Oak Forest quarterfinal winner at Patriot Field in two weeks.
Oak Forest, winners of five straight coming in, dropped to 7-4, 2-3.
Davis now has 59 wins in this his sixth year at MRA. His team is 22-3 overall the past two seasons – 22-2 in the regular season – and undefeated at home during that time period. He hopes to get win No. 60 in two weeks, and win No. 61 the following week in the MSAIS Class 6A championship game at Mississippi College's Robinson-Hale Stadium.
Davis knows it won't come easy, however. Oak Forest is the likely opponent, although Parklane has narrowly lost to No. 2 seed Jackson Prep (31-28 2OT) and No. 3 seed Jackson Academy (15-14) in recent weeks. The Yellowjackets defeated Parklane 41-22 during the regular season, and will host the quarterfinal playoff game here where plenty of good Cajun home cooking is served.
An MRA win would put the Patriots in the title game opposite the winner of the other semifinal pitting Jackson Academy vs. seven-time reigning champion Jackson Prep. Both of those teams are also off this week as PCS has been banned from postseason play (in football) for failing to play its final three junior high games.
Like two of the most famous dishes in this part of the country – gumbo and jambalaya – Friday's game included a little bit of everything, especially for a game that saw only 28 combined points on the scoreboard on the end of a very chilly early November evening.
There was, among other things, a two touchdown advantage by the visiting team in the first quarter, with one of those touchdowns coming on a zig-zagging, multi-tackle breaking 18-yard run by MRA quarterback Philip Short – bad wheel and all; a scare from that same quarterback late in the second quarter when he took a shot to the head while sliding into the turf, and had to leave the game momentarily; a nifty fake punt by the home team resulting in a first down in the fourth quarter; a potentially game-altering overthrow of an open receiver by Oak Forest quarterback John Henry White, who was on the wrong end of several of the many hard hits doled out; a lead-preserving goal line stand by the Patriots' salty defense early in the third quarter; an MRA player, Stone Blanton, departing with a possible broken rib; and more penalty flags than anyone cares to remember, with the majority of those going against the visitors from Mississippi.
"I'll tell you what we fought adversity all night, from all the elements let's just say that," Davis said. "I'm proud of our kids. They kept fighting, kept battling until the end. Bottom line, we're walking out of here with a win. And now we've got a week off to recover, and we've got a new season coming up."
MRA finished with 344 yards total offense – 146 rushing, 198 passing. Oak Forest, meanwhile, had 197 total yards, with 134 of those coming in the second half after being limited to only 63 yards in the first half. The ground-and-pound Yellowjackets had zero passing yards as White went 0-for-15 through the air.
For what it's worth, Oak Forest has completed just three of 31 pass attempts for 36 yards in three games against MRA over the course of the past three seasons. The Patriots have outscored the Yellowjackets by a combined score of 93-29 in those three games.
Oak Forest entered averaging 31.7 points per game, having scored 40 or more points four times. The Yellowjackets managed only seven points on this night, however, with those coming courtesy of a 1-yard touchdown run by White late in the third quarter a few minutes after Willie Latham had given MRA a 21-0 lead on a 1-yard scoring run of his own.
Gold-cladded Oak Forest had a few more prime scoring opportunities but was denied each time by Danny White's defense. The Yellowjackets started the second quarter with the ball and drove from their own 26-yard line to the MRA 15-yard line – aided by a pass interference call and an unsportsmanlike penalty on Davis for saying something ill-advised to one of the refs. The Patriots, however, sacked White for a 4-yard loss on 4th-and-11 to end the threat.
Then, early in the third quarter following an interception thrown by Short, Oak Forest once again came up empty after taking over at the MRA 18-yard line. The Yellowjackets managed one first down, then were swatted away on four consecutive plays inside the 6-yard line. MRA cornerback Hayes Puckett batted down White's pass on 4th-and-goal.
"The goal line stands were huge," Puckett said. "The penalties put us in a rough spot, and we had our backs against the wall all night, but we pulled it out. That's probably when we play our hardest, is on the goal line. We didn't give an inch. That was big for us. It was a very physical game, it is every time we play them. So we expected that coming in, and we expect it again in a couple of weeks if we play them again."
Oak Forest, buoyed by the aforementioned well-executed fake punt, drove inside the MRA 40-yard line midway through the fourth quarter only to turn the ball over on downs after failing to convert a 4th-and-15. Earlier, White overthrew his big receiver, who was running wide open across the middle of the field on a play similar to the one Prep cunningly used on the goal line late in the Parklane game to eke out a win a couple of weeks ago. It would have been his only completion of the night, and possibly a home run ball at that. Damage avoided, though.
"It's always tough to play here," said MRA receiver Russ Sceroler, who had five catches for 103 yards, including a 51-yard touchdown late in the first quarter. "We had some calls go against us, but we played hard, and we played physical. We matched their physicality and were able to come out on top."
MRA did so without leading rusher A.J. Hasley, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in last week's win over PCS. That now leaves Davis without his top four projected running backs entering the season. Josh Tucker, the leading returning rusher from a year ago, opted to transfer to St. Andrew's. In addition, Starkville Academy transfer Tyler Latham and Rayf Vinson both sustained season-ending knee injuries. Latham was injured early in the fourth game of this season, Vinson the seventh.
Despite their absence, MRA posted its third-highest total on the ground this season. The Patriots rushed for a season-high 193 yards in a win over Hartfield, and 177 in a win over Jackson Academy. MRA utilized seven different backs, including Sam Polles who gained 13 yards on his first carry of the season.
"I thought we played physical," Davis said. "We've got some things to fix if we play them again, that's for sure. The good thing is I thought we ran the ball well tonight. We just had too many penalties that wiped out a lot of good plays for us. I know we had at least one touchdown called back."
That came early in the fourth quarter. Short connected with Sceroler on what would've been a 15-yard touchdown pass, only to have it waved off by a penalty.
Short, the reigning Offensive Player of the Year in the league, completed 14 of 24 passes for 198 yards and the one touchdown – running his season totals to 2,714 yards and 29 touchdowns. He also added another highlight-worthy play, although it would be with his feet. Facing a 4th-and-3 at the Oak Forest 18-yard line, Short somehow weaved his way into the end zone, collecting just his second rushing touchdown of the season and fifth in his two years at MRA.
"We were down inside the 20 and we needed a couple of yards," Short said. "I called my own number right there. I had to make a play for my team. I'm sure my coaches were yelling get down, get down, but I saw six and I had to get six."
Short didn't get down early enough on the one play in the second quarter, although he did his part. An Oak Forest player came in and hit him hard up high as he was sliding along the turf. No penalty was called on the play, however.
"I got hit in the head pretty hard, but my head wasn't the problem," he said. "My (injured) ankle kind of planted in the turf and it got rolled up on. The thing about it is my ankle is going to hurt the rest of the year, especially when something like that happens. I'm going to have to put a cast on it at the end of the year, but for now I just have to tape it up tight and roll with it. If it hurts, I can sit out a little bit and then come back like I did tonight. I've got to be out there for my team."
Blanton, who was a one-man wrecking crew prior to being forced out of the game in the second half because of the injury, finished the game on the bench in pain. It should be noted, many of the 134 rushing yards Oak Forest had in the second half came with him on the sideline, including a 52-yard run that set up the Yellowjackets' lone touchdown and a 36-yard scamper later on. The sophomore linebacker certainly adds a physical presence that is missed when he's not in on defense.
There is no update on the injury at this time, although he is expecting to play in two weeks. That would be good news for a defense that has been solid, if not spectacular for most of this season. The Patriots have held nine of its 12 opponents to 12 points or fewer, seven to seven points or less. White's gang is allowing on average 189 yards per game.
"Oak Forest is the type of team that if you let them hand around they will hang around," Short said. "And that's what happened tonight. We played a little sloppy, and we didn't put up as many points as we normally do. But our defense played lights out. We've got a great defense, and they showed that once again tonight."
MRA started the season with five straight wins, then dropped back-to-back road games at Philadelphia (ranked No. 1 in Class 2A) and Briarcest Christian (ranked among the top 10 teams in Tennessee) before winning the last five. It adds up to another 10-win season, another top seed and first round bye in the playoffs and a potential return to the state championship game for the Patriots.
"It's huge to come back this year and back up what we did last year," Sceroler said. "We lost to two tough teams in the middle of the season, but we've bounced back the way we wanted to and finished the regular season strong. That's one reason tonight's game was so important. We wanted to come down here and win, even though we knew we already had the No. 1 seed wrapped up for the playoffs. Now, we've just got to finish."