Senior running back William Milam tries to hold off a defender.
Senior running back William Milam tries to hold off a defender.
MADISON – MRA trailed Briarcrest by two touchdowns at halftime, and was still down by the same margin with just under nine minutes remaining in the intersectional game on Friday night at Patriot Field.

Little did the unsuspecting Saints know, the insanely-conditioned Patriots had them right where they wanted them. Well, not exactly. But close. Close enough as it turned out.

“I told my guys at halftime if we could get back in it our conditioning would win it,” MRA head coach Herbert Davis said. “(Briarcrest) was tired. Our goal was to hang in to the end, try to wear them down, and find a way to win in the end.”

That’s exactly how things transpired, although Davis, or nobody else for that matter, at the time could’ve possibly foreseen or predicted the crazy turn of events or delicious drama to follow. The Patriots snagged momentum, staged an improbable rally, and somehow escaped with an exhilarating 42-35 upset victory over a much bigger and more talented Briarcrest team.

MRA outscored Memphis-based Briarcrest 28-7 in the fourth quarter, tallying 21 unanswered points over the final seven minutes to post the biggest win of the Davis era – surpassing the win at Class 4A St. Stanislaus a year ago. The final two touchdowns – one produced by the offense, the other by the defense – came during a scintillating 13-second blur, vaulting the Patriots into the lead for the first time and sending an already-frenzied crowd into an even larger frenzy.

“It was wild,” MRA senior Ridge Futral said. “I’ve never been a part of a game like this one. We noticed when they walked out to stretch for the second half they thought they had the game won. They thought they were going to come out and roll us. But the one thing about this team is we never quit.”

Trailing by one score, Briarcrest had one last chance for some heroics of its own. However, following a 30-yard run by quarterback Jackson Walker on the first play that moved the ball out to midfield, MRA’s defense came up with stops on four consecutive plays to seal the deal. Jackson’s final desperation pass, under heavy duress, floated harmlessly out of bounds along the Patriots’ sideline. All that was left was for the MRA offense to successfully run off the final one minute, 32 seconds remaining on the clock.

As soon as the final second ticked off, the MRA student section, which had been greatly supportive and vocal throughout the game, spilled out of the stands and onto the track for an impromptu victory lap. They patiently waited to the conclusion of Davis’ emotionally-charged postgame speech, then swarmed the field to celebrate with the players. Lottery or no lottery in Mississippi, they all acted is if they had just purchased the winning ticket.

It was quite a scene indeed, and quite a night on 7601 Old Canton Road for all the Patriot faithful – one that will certainly be relished and remembered for some time to come.

MRA remained undefeated and improved to 3-0 headed into next week’s game at Hartfield. Briarcrest suffered its first loss, falling to 2-1.

“I’ve had a lot of good wins in my career, I’ve won championships, but this one has to rank right up there near the top,” Davis said. “Briarcrest has a great quality program. They beat us last year at their place, and they’ve got a lot of talent. They’ve got a handful of guys who are going to go on and play Division I football, and several more who will probably play small college ball. We just kept battling away. We showed great character tonight. Heart, team work, believing and our conditioning won that game for us.”

There are no lines on high school games, but if there had been one for Friday’s game Briarcrest would’ve likely been favored by a couple of touchdowns despite being three hours away from home. The Saints defeated the Patriots 27-7 a year ago in Memphis, scoring the final 20 points of the game. And they are much better this year. Fabulous running back Jabari Small, who accounted for 194 yards (16 carries, 133 yards/5 catches, 61 yards) and scored all five of his team’s touchdowns on this night, has offers from Tennessee and Arkansas, among others. Massive lineman Omari Thomas (6-5, 300) has offers from numerous DI schools, including Alabama. The aforementioned Jackson is a Richmond commit. Noah Grant is a five-star kicker. And ultra-talented WR/DB Reggie Neely and 6-7, 230-pound tight end Richard Hunt – both better known for their basketball exploits – are drawing considerable football interest, as well. Not to mention offensive linemen Zach Yates or Rodney Newsom, who both go 6-4, 315 pounds.

That’s not to say MRA doesn’t have talent. It certainly does. However, the deck was definitely stacked against the homestanding Patriots. While Briarcrest played its best hand early, MRA saved its best cards for late, including the Ace - which in this case trumped all others. Make no mistake, the Patriots’ off-season program, which included rigorous training from local fitness guru Paul Lacoste this summer, has been a difference maker. It showed in MRA’s first two games and it manifested itself once again Friday night at the most opportune of times, namely the second half and the fourth quarter in particular.

Simply put, the Patriots, who are in prime shape, were fresh near the end of the game and the Saints were not.

“We sensed that they were tired at halftime, and as the game went on we started sensing it even more,” Futral said. “You could see the difference. This is the best conditioned team we’ve ever had. We’ve got multiple guys playing both ways, but we still come out and play hard.”

Deuces were also wild on this night, as in the two blocked punts in the second half that help fuel MRA’s comeback - one of which led to a touchdown. Also No. 22 Landes Purnell, who enjoyed a career night with nine catches for 170 yards. It was his 71-yard touchdown catch that tied the game at 35-35 with 2:25 remaining. He also blocked a punt and recovered the ball on the other one. In addition, it was No. 2 Rayf Vinson, a mere sophomore, who provided the game-winner just 13 seconds following Purnell’s game-tying TD reception, intercepting a tipped pass off the fingertips of a Briarcrest receiver and racing 29 yards to paydirt.

Purnell took advantage of busted coverage on his touchdown, racing wide open down the middle of the field on the first play of the drive. “It was a perfect pass," he said. "I didn’t know if they were behind me or not when I caught it, so I ran as fast as I could to the end zone. Perfect play, perfect play-call.”

Added Davis: “Landes ran a vertical route, the safety cheated up, and nobody was back there. We got the exact coverage we thought we were going to get. That was one of our shot plays, and we got it.”

Lucky 7’s were also at play, as in No. 7 Philip Short, who completed 23 of 40 passes for a career-high 305 yards and four touchdowns. Two of those came in the first half – both to William Milam out of the backfield – to help MRA stay within striking distance. His other touchdown pass was a 5-yarder to two-way standout Joe Perkins early in the fourth quarter. Milam also added a touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter to set MRA’s comeback in motion. The senior running back has now totaled eight touchdowns in the Patriots’ first three games.

Back to Short. The junior, in his first year at MRA, threw one interception and also fumbled once in the first half under heavy pressure. Otherwise, he had a splendid night running Davis’ Baylor-like, up-tempo offense, keeping plays alive with his legs despite taking numerous big hits, and also efficiently spread the ball to his playmakers. In short, Short gives MRA a dose of dynamism at that position and delivers some electricity to the Patriots’ offense.

“I have to give all the credit to God, who is the head of my life and this team,” Short said. “The offensive line did a great job, so did my receivers, and we were able to make some plays. Our defense stepped up and played marvelous in the second half, too.”

MRA also had two special team mistakes in the first half – a snap that was mishandled by the punter deep in Patriots’ territory along with a muffed punt. The Saints capitalized on three of those four miscues leading to 21 of their 28 first half points. The Patriots flipped the script in the second half, however, playing mistake-free – outside of a few penalties – while also coming up with a couple of big plays on special teams themselves.

Briarcrest went three-and-out four times and scored only one touchdown in the second half. Jackson completed just two of 11 passes for 36 yards in the final 24 minutes.

“We really killed ourselves with turnovers in the first half . . . we put our defense in a bad situation,” Davis said. “They gave up that one touchdown in the second half, but other than that they shut them down. I can’t say enough about those guys. My hat is off to them.”

Defensive coordinator Danny White’s crew has now come up with 56 turnovers over the course of the past two-plus seasons. Few, if any, were bigger than Vinson’s Pick 6 in the waning minutes. Once he picked off the pass, he somehow eluded several would-be tacklers near the middle of the field, quickly changed course to his right, and jetted into the end zone.

“I was late on my read so I was trailing him. . . I saw the ball go through his hands and I grabbed it,” Vinson said. “I thought I was going to go to the ground at first, but I saw an opening and took off.” Asked what he was thinking once he got his hands on the ball, Vinson replied: “Wow. I was in disbelief.”

So, too, was everyone else.

“I saw the tight end tip it, then I saw Rayf catch it,” explained Futral, who was about 10 yards away from the play. “There were a few linemen there, and it looked like he was going to get swarmed up. We had a couple of blocks that allowed him to get out of there and get into the end zone. I was in total amazement.”