Patriots Falter On ESPN2

MADISON – The buzz was palpable leading up to Saturday’s nationally-televised matinee here at sun-splashed Patriot Field.

The ESPN2 cameras were in place and ready to roll for the historic occasion. The drumline was kicking it. The fences were lined with colorful posters. One end zone was littered with red tents and patrons. The sparkling new scoreboard on the other end was aglow. Music was blaring. Fans from the opposing teams intermingled about. The student section was already rowdy, complete in luau attire. The air was filled with the aroma of concession food. What a magnificent, energized scene it was.

Sadly, defending Tennessee Class 6A public school state champion Oakland High proved to be total buzz killers, defeating homestanding MRA 31-13. The Murfreesboro-based Patriots scored on the fourth play of the game and never looked back, extending their winning streak to 17 games in dominate fashion.

“It was a great atmosphere, a great opportunity for our program and our school,” MRA head coach Herbert Davis said. “Obviously, we would’ve liked a different outcome . . . we would’ve liked to have won the game. But, that’s a heckuva football team. We just ran into a buzzsaw.”

The intersectional game was one of seven televised over the weekend as part of the ESPN GEICO High School Kickoff Series. Typically, high school football games are played on Friday nights. However, this one was moved to Saturday to accommodate the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Friday, Saturday – or any day of the week ending in y, really – television or no television, Mississippi or Tennessee, the outcome would’ve likely been the same. Oakland, which finished ranked No. 16 in the USA Today National Top 25 final poll last season and is ranked 46th nationally this year by MaxPreps, is just that good.

Displaying a big-play, Wing-T offense and a physical, ball-hawking 3-3-5 defense, Oakland led 17-0 at halftime and 24-0 through three quarters before two-time defending MAIS Class 6A state champion MRA finally broke through with a pair of late touchdowns. It proved to be too little, too late for the Patriots, who dropped to 1-2. After winning 19 straight over the past two seasons, MRA has lost two of three to open this season. In addition, it has now lost two straight at home after winning 22 straight.

“It was cool being on ESPN and all . . . and the MRA fans really showed up and supported,” said MRA wideout Street Toler, who had six catches for 84 yards, including a touchdown. “It was a great experience to be a part of. Unfortunately, we didn’t live up to it. You have to give Oakland credit. They’re really good. That’s one of, if not the best defense, we’ll face all year. They had some studs.”

Said MRA linebacker Bennett Cloud: “The energy was crazy. I thought we did a pretty good job of handling everything that came with it, we just ran into a really good team today. They were very physical. Even though we lost, I felt like we improved a lot, especially on defense.”

Clearly, MRA was much more competitive in Week 3 than it was in a Week 1 loss to defending MAIS Class 3A state champion Greenville Christian. The Patriots scored 19 more points in that season-opening loss, but on the flip side they also gave up 27 more points than they did Saturday against the top-ranked team in Tennessee.

“We’re not where we want to be, but we’ve come in the last two weeks and worked our butts off and we’ve gotten better,” Davis said. “I thought that was obvious today, we’ve gotten better. We did a lot of good things today, we’re just not consistent enough. A lot of that goes back to our youthfulness. Once those guys figure some things out, I think we’ve got the chance to have a really good football team.”

Oakland finished with 339 yards total offense – 241 yards rushing on 41 carries, 98 yards passing. Meanwhile, MRA totaled 309 yards – 103 yards rushing on 45 carries, 206 yards passing.

Big plays once again haunted the MRA defense. Oakland’s first touchdown came courtesy of a 65-yard pass from quarterback Kade Hewitt to running back Antonio Patterson. The Patriots also got a 55-yard touchdown run by Jordan James in the second quarter and a 45-yard touchdown run by Eric Taylor in the fourth quarter.

James, a Georgia commit rated as the No. 3 player in Tennessee and the No. 16 running back in the country, finished with 169 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns. His second touchdown came early in the fourth quarter, a 3-yarder which capped a 19-play, 95-yard drive and gave Oakland a commanding 24-0 lead.

While Oakland was able to finish that particular drive and produce a handful of big plays, the MRA offense wasn’t able to do the same against an Oakland defense that returned eight starters from a year ago. Not until late, at least. Quarterback John White, who seemingly was running for his life the entire afternoon, and Co. had marginal success moving the ball at times despite the constant pressure. However, MRA had trouble sustaining and capitalizing on those opportunities.

MRA drove inside the Oakland 32-yard line on three occasions through the first three quarters only to come away empty each time. White was also picked off twice. The Patriots finally managed to find pay dirt in the fourth quarter as White hooked up with Toler on a 26-yard scoring strike with 4 minutes, 38 seconds left to cut the deficit to 24-6. After Oakland extended its lead to 31-6, White connected with a wide open Matthew Latham for a 10-yard scoring strike.

It wasn’t enough, however.

“Defensively, there were a few plays that we didn’t fit gaps and that hurt us, and offensively there were one, two, three things here or there that killed our drives,” Davis said. “We’ve got to continue to work on those things and get better, especially along the offensive line. (Oakland) was so strong and fast up front we couldn’t do anything with them.”

MRA will play yet another state champion this upcoming week when it travels to Little Rock to face two-time defending Arkansas Class 5A state champion Pulaski Academy. The Bruins have won six state titles in the last seven years and are riding a 23-game winning streak. Ranked No. 2 in Arkansas by MaxPreps, high-scoring Pulaski won its season-opener 69-22.

“They won’t be as physical as this team (Oakland), but they are going to get in 5-wide and throw it a lot so it will be an entirely different type of challenge,” Davis said.