Amite, La. – Conventional wisdom tells us it's extremely difficult to do anything at an extremely high level ALL the time.
Golfers find it hard to follow a really low round with another low round. A student is more than likely not going to post the same score on the ACT multiple times. A surgeon is not going to be at his/her best every time he/she puts on the blue or green scrubs. Same for the preacher preaching the same sermon in consecutive services. Heck, ask any woman and they'll tell you it's next to impossible to even have a good hair day all the time. The frizzies happen.
It is what it is. That's just life. Human nature, if you will. All that said, one didn't need the services of a fortune teller or psychic to foretell what was likely going to happen, and did happen, here Friday night in Cajun country. Coming off highly emotional, mega-wins over rivals Jackson Academy and Jackson Prep the past two weeks that left the tank near empty – and 10 weeks deep into the season with no bye week to speak off – MRA simply didn't pack it's A-game for the two-hour trek from Madison to Tangipahoa Parish.
"More like our C-game," MRA receiver Landes Purnell said.
The Patriots, understandably so, weren't nearly as focused or sharp as they've been most weeks during this incredibly memorable, and so far perfect, season. Especially in the first half, which ended with them leading by only nine. Guess what? They still drove away with a 42-19 road victory over Oak Forest, a win that kept their unblemished record intact and also wrapped up the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye for the upcoming playoffs.
Aesthetically speaking, while it wasn't a Bo Derek-Perfect 10 – think more along the lines of Roseanne Barr or Whoopi Goldberg – a win is a win is a win. Coach Herbert Davis' club overcame a season-high four turnovers, 12 penalties (nine in the first half), an uneven performance from quarterback Philip Short and the offense as a whole, an injury to star defensive end Sam Shufelt, and, in general, the malaise that typically occurs at some point during any season.
"It was just a very inconsistent, ugly win . . . we made a lot of mistakes on both sides of the ball," Davis said. "But the good thing is we won. And we solidified the (regular season) championship and the top seed so that was big. You're not going to be at your best every week, I realize that. But, at the same time, we've got to be more mature than that and be ready to play. We've got good leadership. We'll bounce back, get better, and be ready for the stretch run."
MRA, which made its debut in The Clarion-Ledger Super 10 poll this week at No. 10, improved to 10-0 overall and 4-0 in conference play. It marked the first time in over two months the Patriots had played a game outside the Jackson-metro area dating all the way back to the Aug. 10 season-opener at Magnolia Heights. They conclude the regular season next Friday at PCS.
Oak Forest dropped to 8-2, 2-2. The Yellowjackets received a bit of good news earlier during their homecoming week when they were awarded a forfeit win over ACCS thanks to an ineligible player ruling by the MAIS.
It speaks volumes to just how well MRA has performed this season, and to just how good the Patriots are when they are at their best, when a 23-point win on the road against a quality opponent derived such a seemingly negative Nancy narrative in the aftermath. And make no mistake, Oak Forest is a quality opponent. The scrappy, run-dominate Yellowjackets have won 46 games over the past five seasons, have won one state championship and played for two more.
However, that was the general connotation as the players and coaches left the field and made their way back to the buses for the trip back up I-55.
"After the big win last week, we didn't come out as focused as we needed to be," Purnell said. "It's hard to get up for every game. We weren't us, especially in the first half. We went back in the locker room at halftime, Coach Davis talked to us, and we came out and did what we're supposed to do in the second half."
Added defensive end John Cartwright: "It's easier to get up for Jackson Prep than Oak Forest for sure. It's coming down to the end for me so I'm going hard as I can every snap. I guess some of the guys took off a little bit tonight. It's not like they were doing it on purpose. It's just a mental thing."
As for Davis' halftime message?
"He told us to wake up basically, it was time to go," Cartwright said.
In a year of blowouts – MRA owns a winning margin of nearly 33 points per game and had outscored its opponents 292-63 in the first half coming in – Oak Forest became just the third team this season to be within single digits of the Patriots at halftime. Briarcrest actually led at halftime before MRA staged a second half rally. And, of course, Prep last week.
Cartwright hauled in a 5-yard dump touchdown pass from Short on the fourth play of the game to give MRA a 7-0 lead less than two minutes in. Here we go again, right? Not so much. Oak Forest's Thomas Lee picked off an errant pass from Short later in the first quarter and raced 60 yards for a touchdown to make it 7-6. The Patriots responded with back-to-back touchdowns to surge ahead 21-6 early in the second quarter, both coming on touchdown passes from Short – a 30-yarder to Cody Swanson and a 63-yarder to Purnell.
Oak Forest came away with another turnover just before the half, as Short, throwing from the shadows of his own end zone, was picked off for a second time. Taking over at the MRA 18-yard line, the Yellowjackets scored three plays later on a 3-yard run by Lee to pull to within 21-13 at the half.
What looked like a possible Oak Forest upset at the time, quickly turned into another MRA runaway in the second half. Short, who had been mostly off-target in the first half despite the three touchdown passes, found his groove once again. And, as a result, so did the offense. The junior signal-caller completed five of his six passes in the third quarter before giving way to backup Pierce Smith, including a 55-yard touchdown to Purnell. Cody Swanson, once again filling in admirably at running back for the injured William Milam (back) and Josh Tucker (collarbone), then added a 10-yard scoring run to push the Patriots' lead to 35-13.
A.J. Hasley tacked on a 15-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter to make it a 42-13 game. Two plays later, Lee scored his third touchdown of the night for Oak Forest, rambling 76 yards for a score against the Patriots' reserves to make it 42-19.
Short, who has been oh-so-good this season (2,303 yards, 27 TDs), suffered through perhaps his worst game of the season. After connecting on his first three passes, nine of his next 11 passes fell incomplete. He finished the night completing 16 of 31 passes for 331 yards and four touchdowns to go along with the two interceptions. Not bad when that's your worst game, huh?
"He really got it together in the second half," Purnell said.
MRA finished with 525 total yards (352 passing, 173 rushing) and exceeded the 40-point mark for the ninth time in 10 games. The Patriots have now scored 40 or more nine straight weeks since being "held" to 38 points in the season-opening win at Magnolia Heights.
More Positive Paula? Let's talk about Purnell, who continues to impress with his big-play ability. The shifty senior should be a shoe-in for the most interesting man in the world – well, at least on the MRA campus. He doesn't always catch touchdowns, but when he does they usually go for big yards. His seven TD catches this season have gone for, get this: 55, 63, 71, 43, 60, 18 and 57 yards!
Not only that, they always seem to come at big times. His 71-yarder tied up the Briarcrest game in the fourth quarter. And the 57-yarder came against Prep, helping MRA regain the lead 21-14 after Prep had rallied to tie the game. And then there was the 55-yarder on this night, helping jumpstart his team from the doldrums and avoid the possible upset. Purnell now has 27 catches for 655 yards, an average of 24.2 yards per catch.
"(Landes) keeps making big plays for us," Davis said. "The guy can get can vertical on you if you don't get on top of him."
Swanson also continues to emerge as a playmaker. Two week ago, prior to the Prep game, he had zero carries and only three receptions on the season. While certainly a key component on defense, he was an afterthought on offense. No longer. The senior had nine carries for 123 yards and a touchdown in the win over Prep, and followed that up with a two-touchdown night against Oak Forest.
He finished with nine carries for 50 yards and one catch for 30. He also returned the opening kickoff 28 yards helping set the stage for MRA's first touchdown, and his 45-yard kickoff return paved the way for the Patriots' second touchdown. Oh yeah, he also recovered a fumble inside the 5-yard line, capping a terrific goal line stand by the MRA defense near the end of the second quarter.
"I'm just doing whatever the coaches ask me to do, whatever I can do to help this team win," Swanson said. "It took me about a week or so to learn the plays, then I figured it out that it's just left or right and to follow the pulling guard. I'm hitting the hole harder, and I'm more confident in my line, and I feel like they are more confident in me."
Even the 19 points Oak Forest scored come with an asterisk, at least where the defense is concerned. When you break it down, the Patriots' D, playing without the injured Shufelt (knee) in the second half, truly gave up only 12 points - right on its average. One of those came on a short field following a turnover, and the other came late when most of the second-teamers were in. The Yellowjackets finished with 239 total net yards, all but 14 coming via the ground.
"I should've punted the ball right there before halftime, that gave them the short field and they scored the touchdown," Davis said. "But, you know that's who we've been all year long. We felt good about it. We got a first down, and then we threw one to them. But, overall, I thought our defense played well."
Oak Forest ran the ball on 48 of its 52 plays. The forward pass is a rumor or foreign concept of sorts for the Yellowjackets, who completed only one pass on the evening – just their 15th completion of the season. Oak Forest had only 62 yards rushing in the second half – prior to Lee's lengthy scoring run late in the game.
"You've got to get your fits right and we didn't have them right some of the time," Cartwright said. "It's a hard offense to defend. It's something that's non-conventional, it's not something you see every week."