Patriots Advance To Title Game

MADISON – Jude Aldridge is one heckuva football player. His acting skills could use a little work, though.

Late in the first half of Friday night’s MAIS Class 6A semifinal, MRA’s standout defensive lineman found himself on the not-so-friendly end of some friendly fire. A little dazed and woozy – but truly okay – he was instructed by one of his coaches to fall to the ground instead of risking getting off the field in time. He wasn’t faking an injury, mind you, just trying to avoid a penalty.

Let’s just say Aldridge took it a tad bit over-the-top.

“Was that too dramatic,” Aldridge said, with a big grin on his face as trainers escorted him toward the sideline.

That was about the only drama on this mid-November night at Patriot Field, and it wasn’t real drama despite the hilarious sell job. After a somewhat spooky Friday the 13th in the year 2020 kind of start for the home team, heavily-favored MRA rolled to a never-in-doubt 42-14 victory over PCS and star running back Marquis Crosby to earn a spot in next Saturday’s 6A state championship game.

The reigning 6A state champion Patriots, 11-0, will square off with Jackson Academy. The Raiders, 10-3, surprised Jackson Prep 28-21 in the other 6A semifinal at Flowood, rallying from a 21-7 deficit entering the fourth quarter.

“I didn’t care which one we played, I just wanted to play one of them again,” said MRA quarterback Zach Beasley, who threw for 274 yards and four touchdowns – all in the first half. “I’ve never played in a championship game before, so I’m looking forward to it. It feels good.”

MRA will carry an 18-game winning streak into Saturday’s 1:15 title game at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. The Patriots, winners of 22 straight at home, have won 30 of their last 31 games against MAIS competition and 35 of their last 38 overall. Coach Herbert Davis’ squad will by vying for a second straight state championship and fourth in program history.

“I’m proud of our kids,” Davis said. “It has been a great year, we’ve just got to finish. We started out slow tonight, but we got it going. We moved the ball well on offense, our defense played well outside of a couple of busted coverages, and we were good on special teams for the most part. It was a good, solid performance, but we will have to play better next week if we’re going to win another championship. We’ve got some things we need to clean up.”

MRA cleaned up on PCS for the second time in the past few weeks, scoring touchdowns on six consecutive possessions to take a commanding 42-7 halftime lead. Beasley threw a pair of touchdown passes to Davis Dalton (89, 18), one to Trey Zito (30), and another to Rayf Vinson (28). Vinson also added a touchdown run (3), as did Tylor Latham (49) – all in the first 24 minutes.

The Bobcats finished 8-5 despite 165 yards and one touchdown from Crosby, who became Mississippi’s single-season rushing record holder. The senior running back, a Louisiana Tech commit, entered needing only 37 yards to break the state record of 3,517 yards. Crosby entered the record books on a 63-yard run with 4:08 remaining in the first quarter.

He also had a 3-yard touchdown run with :50 seconds remaining before halftime, breaking a nearly six quarter scoreless drought against the Patriots’ defense. MRA blanked PCS 28-0 in Hattiesburg three weeks ago. Crosby had 104 yards on 26 carries in the first half against MRA’s first-string defense, then added 61 more yards on five carries in the second half against mostly reserves.

Even though Crosby got the record and scored once, Danny White’s defense did a fairly nice job of containing the nation’s leading rusher outside of the 63-yard run. Stone Blanton and Co. had six tackles for losses on Crosby, and held him to zero yards three times, one yard four times, and two yards five times. So, on 19 of his 31 carries, he was limited to two yards or less.

The Patriots’ defense also turned in a momentum-flipping goal line stand early in the game and came away with three turnovers – two fumbles and an interception – leading directly to three touchdowns during the first half onslaught.

“We just stuck to our game plan and did the best we could against him,” Vinson said. “I thought we did a pretty good job for the most part.”

Vinson, a Navy commit and MRA’s most versatile player, turned in an outstanding performance in his last home game. Not only did he score a pair of touchdowns – one rushing, one receiving – he also recovered a fumble and had a highlight-worthy interception. He had seven carries for 52 yards and two catches for 60 yards, rarely coming out of the game in the first half while pulling additional duty this week. Vinson filled in at the Tiger position on defense for the injured Hayes Puckett.

“It was awesome, but this game is behind us now. We have one more week . . . one more week of all we’ve got for the rest of our lives,” said Vinson, who has a team-best 18 touchdowns this season – 15 rushing, three receiving. “That’s what I’ve been telling the seniors. It’s going to be a little weird knowing I’m never going to play Prep again. (JA) is another opponent, we’ve got to prepare and be ready. We really want to finish it, and go back-to-back. That’s something MRA has never done before.”

MRA was without the services of one of its top defensive players in Puckett. The senior safety suffered a season-ending injury (torn labrum) in the first quarter of the regular-season finale against Oak Forest. Fellow safety Drew Peacock also missed Friday’s semifinal due to an injured shoulder, also sustained in the Oak Forest game. There is an outside chance he will be available for the championship game.

More on the injury front: Offensive lineman George Drake, who has missed most of the season with an injured leg, returned to action Friday. He started on the offensive line alongside mainstays Harper Blake, J.P. Wilke, Rush Bland and Mason McCrory. Drake’s return paved the way for Triston Hayles to be available at linebacker after filling in admirably along the offensive line in Drake’s absence.

MRA is presently shorthanded in the offensive backfield, too. Third-leading rusher J.J. Latham (ankle) and fourth-leading rusher Hatcher Swanson (illness) were both unavailable against PCS, leaving most of the carries to Tylor Latham and Vinson. Swanson is also the Patriots’ long-snapper, pressing a backup into that role. Wouldn’t you know it, that came into play early.

After going three-and-out on its opening drive, MRA was forced to punt. The snap sailed over the head of Dalton, handing the ball over to PCS at the Patriots’ 19-yard line. Nine plays and three penalties later, Crosby was stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. Four plays later, Dalton hauled in a 89-yard touchdown pass from Beasley, making a Willie Mays-esque over the shoulder grab before racing his way into the end zone.

It was all MRA from that point on.

“That entire sequence was huge for us, first the goal line stand then the long touchdown pass,” Davis said. “That really settled us down a little bit, and made a huge statement.”

Said Sam Polles: “That was big. We came out not looking so hot . . . we had a bad snap on a punt. Our defense has been unbelievable all year, though. We never doubted ourselves. They were inside our 20 to start the drive, but we were able to come up with the stop. It really changed the momentum.”

Davis finished with 8 catches for 168 yards. His second touchdown grab came with three seconds remaining in the half, just 47 seconds after Crosby’s scoring run. MRA drove from its own 35-yard line and scored on the sixth play of the drive as Dalton “Mossed” a would-be PCS defender in the end zone, high-pointing a 19-yard scoring pass from Beasley.

Dalton, a junior, now has 38 catches for 841 yards and a team-high 14 touchdown receptions this season. He is averaging 22 yards per catch. He will get his first crack at JA on Saturday as he missed the first game (illness).

“That wasn’t very much fun missing the first game, so I’m looking forward to getting to play against them this time,” Davis said.

Dalton is no doubt enjoyed a breakout junior season. He’s without question Beasley’s favorite target, as well. Speaking of Beasley, he now has thrown for nearly 2,300 yards and 26 touchdowns against only four interceptions in his first season at MRA after transferring from Northwest Rankin.

The senior transfer missed on his first three throws before completing seven straight passes, and 10 of his next 11. He finished 13 of 19 and turned in his second four-touchdown pass performance in as many weeks.

“We didn’t know what we were going to get on that first drive, and it didn’t go very good for us,” Beasley said. “The last time we played them they dropped eight into coverage the whole game. This game, they switched it up a lot. So, we had to adjust to it as the game went on and take what they were giving us.”

MRA had five explosive plays (20 yards or more), giving it 66 such plays this season. The Patriots scored 28 points in the second quarter for the second straight week. Get this: MRA has outscored opponents 310-57 in the first half this season, 163-28 in the second quarter alone. Meanwhile, the Patriots’ defense has allowed only 14 total points in the last 13 quarters while scoring nine points.

“Most people at the beginning of the year didn’t think we had the team to do the things we’ve done this year,” Polles said. “That was fuel to us. Over the summer we worked really hard. After we beat Trinity Christian (Texas) in that first game we really knew that we could hang with anybody. We’re here now. We made it. We’ve got one more week. We’re hoping to go back-to-back.”

Davis knows it won’t be easy. JA will be looking to avenge a 20-10 loss to MRA way back on Sept. 4 in Jackson. And the Raiders, looking for their first state championship since 2011, come in with a lot of momentum having won six straight.

“JA has a really good football team, and they’ve gotten better as the year has gone along,” Davis said. “We only beat them by 10 when we played them the first time, so we’re going to have to play well. We’ve got to go in and do what we do, play our game and execute. We’ve got good players, they’ve just got to make plays.”