Patriots Tame Lions, 34-12

RALEIGH – In the early part of the fourth quarter, the PA announcer leaned into his microphone, and with a slow, distinct Southern drawl said “I don’t know how to explain that one.”

He was referring to a comical sequence that had just transpired in which the bungling officiating crew puzzlingly walked off off-setting penalties, causing a lengthy delay and leaving the already somewhat discombobulated chain crew in total disarray.

That same line would’ve been applicable had he used it at the conclusion of the topsy-turvy, Murphy’s law kind of first half here Friday night in Smith County – a zany first half that saw MRA turn the ball over four times against Raleigh, have two special teams touchdowns called back due to penalties, and possess the football for a mere 178 seconds.

It was sheer folly in Raleigh. Still, somehow, someway, the Patriots led by a touchdown at the break, got their act together in the second half and went on to tame the Lions 34-12 behind a potent aerial attack and ever-improving defense.

“The thing I was excited about is even though a lot of bad things happened to us in the first half, our defense kept battling, everybody stayed up, we didn’t get down and start pointing fingers . . . we stayed together and found a way to come out and play a better second half and put it away,” MRA head coach Herbert Davis said. “We gave it back to them four times . . . we couldn’t hold onto the ball. When you turn it over like that those types of things happen. But, man we fought hard all night, especially defensively, and did a great job after that.”

Two-time reigning MAIS Class 6A state champion MRA improved to 4-3. After a 1-3 start against a brutal schedule, the Patriots have now won three straight heading into this week’s showdown against rival Jackson Prep at Flowood.

Raleigh, ranked No. 2 in MHSAA Class 3A, dropped to 2-1 despite a big night from stud athlete Suntarine Perkins. The 2023 four-star prospect had 100 yards on 27 carries and also had a pair of touchdown catches in a losing cause.

MRA has now won 23 of its last 26 and 40 of its last 46 games overall. The Patriots improved to 7-4 against MHSAA competition since Davis’ arrival eight years ago. They have defeated St. Stanislaus and Taylorsville each twice, and also boast victories over Amory, Corinth and now Raleigh.

“It makes us better playing games like this,” Davis said. “It’s good for us because it’s a challenge. It’s important to keep sharpening ourselves every week and you do that by playing guys like we did tonight. They were physical and had good speed. We bent a little there early, but we bowed up and ended up being the more physical team before it was over with.”

Said MRA receiver Davis Dalton: “I like playing games against the public schools. It shows that we’re not just a private school team that beats bad teams every week. This is one of the best teams in 3A, so it shows that we can play with a lot of the top public school teams.”

Dalton, a Southern Miss commit, can certainly play in any league. The 6-foot-3 senior proved that once again Friday, hauling in five catches for 123 yards, including three touchdowns. He scored on a 60-yarder from quarterback John White (11-of-16, 310 yards, 4 TDs) on the third play of the game, and later added scoring grabs of 7 and 26 yards in the third and fourth quarter, respectively, to help the Patriots pull away in the second half after the dismal first half in which the Patriots ran only 13 offensive plays.

“That first half was very slow,” said Dalton, who has 42 catches for 710 yards and seven touchdowns this season. “I didn’t even have a drop of sweat on me it seemed like in the first half. I wasn’t even all that mad, though, because I knew we would be alright in the second half. We got man coverage on everybody for pretty much the first time in a long time so Coach Davis decided to go one on one with the outside receivers. We ran a curl or a go pretty much every single time and it seemed to work so we stayed with it.”

Over the past two games alone, Dalton has 12 catches for 291 yards and six touchdowns. That’s an average of 24.3 yards per catch. So much for that just one touchdown through the first five games, huh? After playing sparingly as a sophomore, Dalton has 83 catches for 1,587 yards and 21 touchdowns in 17 games over the past two seasons - an average of 19 yards per catch.

Dalton’s sidekick, fellow senior wide receiver Street Toler, added a 69-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter sandwiched between Dalton’s two second half touchdowns. Toler ran a go route down the middle of the field and never broke stride as he reeled in what was a perfectly thrown deep ball by White.

Toler now has 29 catches for 512 yards and six touchdowns this season. It’s no surprise that Dalton and Toler were both included on SBLive’s recently released top 15 receivers in Mississippi list. The duo has combined for 71 catches for 1,222 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, providing White with two trusty targets and the Patriots one of the top 1-2 receiving tandems in the state.

“We thought we had good matchups on the outside so we attacked that,” Toler said. “John really stepped it up in the second half. He threw me a great ball, and he threw Davis some great balls. It was a weird first half . . . I felt like I wasn’t even on the field . . . but we got it together in the second half.”

That has been the case the past two weeks. A week ago, MRA was tied with Jackson Academy 7-7 at halftime before scoring 28 unanswered points in the second half en route to a 35-7 win. The Patriots scored 21 unanswered in the second half against Raleigh, until the Lions scored an oh-by-the-way touchdown against MRA’s second unit with :12 seconds remaining. Prior to that 94-yard drive against the backups in the waning minutes, the Lions had been shutout and had managed only 45 yards against the Patriots’ defense in the second half.

That said, MRA has outscored its opponents 48-6 in the second half over the last 48 minutes. And, those two teams combined for a meager 101 second half yards against the Patriots’ first-stringers.

Defensive coordinator Danny White’s bunch also forced a fumble in the latter stages of the first quarter, leading directly to a short touchdown run by freshman running back Quincy Phillips. Defensive back Noah Short scooped up the loose pigskin around the Raleigh 30-yard line and scampered to the 2-yard line before being pushed out of bounds.

“Jeff (Polk) came in and hit him pretty good . . . I saw the ball and scooped it up,” explained Short, one of eight new starters on this year’s revamped defense. “I was hoping I was going to score, but the guy got to me before I could get in. I definitely feel like we’re getting better. We gave up a lot of points in three of those first four games, but ever since then we’ve only given up 7, 7 and 12, so that’s a big improvement.”

The numbers back Short up. During the recent three game winning streak, MRA has allowed only 8.7 points per game. The Patriots have yielded an average of 193 yards of total offense – 119 rushing, 74 passing. In MRA’s four wins, the Patriots’ defense has allowed an average of just 8.3 points and 165 total yards per game.

Raleigh, running its own version of the old Wing-T offense, scored on its opening and final possessions. In between, MRA’s defense forced a fumble that set up a touchdown, recorded three 3-and-outs, two 4-and-outs, and forced one punt – accounting for seven of the Lions’ nine other drives. Five of those drives covered nine yards or less.

Under Armour All-American linebacker Stone Blanton had a season-high and game-high 21 tackles. Five of those were for losses, including three sacks. Jeffrey Polk had a career-high 15 tackles. And senior Braeden Watters continued his stellar play with 12 tackles.

“The defense really came through for us tonight,” Toler said.

MRA likes to play fast on offense. The faster the better, in fact. To keep the Patriots’ high-scoring offense off the field, Raleigh essentially went to the football version of the four corners in basketball approach, taking as much time off the clock between snaps as possible and running early and often right into the heart of the MRA defense. The strategy was effective in the first 24 minutes, as the Lions stayed within striking distance – with a lot of help from the Patriots, who tossed a pair of interceptions, fumbled once on offense and in addition muffed a punt. They trailed only 7-6 late into the first quarter and 14-6 at halftime and possessed the ball for 21 minutes, two seconds.

MRA then staged the rally in Raleigh, if you will, scoring touchdowns on three straight possessions to open the second half. The Patriots finished with 402 yards of total offense – 314 passing, 88 rushing.

“Obviously, we need to play better in the first half than we’ve been playing,” Davis said. “Maybe we can get the first half next week, and see if we can keep the second half from the past couple of weeks.”

Oddly enough, MRA is seven games into the season and has played only one conference game. That starts to change this week as four of the Patriots’ remaining five games are inside the conference. The fifth is a homecoming date with Magnolia Heights.

Jackson Prep, under first-year head coach Tyler Turner, is 4-2 overall and 1-0 in conference play. The Patriots opened the season with a pair of lopsided losses to Greenville Christian and Heritage but have won four straight since, including a 35-0 win over Copiah Friday night. Turner replaced longtime coach Ricky Black, who surprisingly resigned last February following an ultra-successful tenure. Black will be honored at Friday’s game.

MRA has won three straight and four of the last five in the series once dominated by Prep, including a 50-24 win a year ago during the regular season.

“The Prep game is always a huge game,” Toler said. “Hopefully we can put it on them again this year. We’re really looking forward to it.”

Said Short: “We know playing at Prep it’s going to be a tough environment, but we’ll be ready for it.”