Quarterback Hunter Hulsey
Quarterback Hunter Hulsey
MADISON – Perhaps Jace Correro summed up Friday’s MRA-Copiah playoff semifinal game the best:
    “That game was absolutely insane,” the MRA slot receiver said shortly following his team’s 49-24 victory at Patriot Field.

Perhaps it has something to do with the upcoming supermoon. Who knows? No astronomer, or anybody else for that matter, could’ve possibly forecasted what all happened during the three-hour window – yes, the game lasted three hours – on this chilly November Friday night. The outcome? Yes. Most expected MRA to win. How we arrived at the outcome? Not so much.

For starters, MRA’s defense did not take the field until the 9:21 mark of the SECOND quarter. That’s when Copiah took its first offensive snap of the game. No, that is not a misprint. In fact, Copiah had only two offensive plays through the first 21-plus minutes of the game. Meanwhile, MRA had 48. By halftime, the Patriots had a total of 50 plays to Copiah’s 10. The Patriots actually had more penalty yards (90) than Copiah did in total offense (82).

Somehow, the Colonels still managed 17 first half points, and at one point only trailed by seven, 21-14. We shall get to that one in moment.

Then there’s the matter of two successful onside kicks by MRA, and one not so successful. Actually, it was returned 48 yards for a Copiah touchdown. Throw in 763 yards of total offense – 542 by the home team, a lengthy delay in which a large contingent of Copiah fans were asked to leave the area behind the visitor’s bench, and a combined 25 penalties totaling 245 yards (yes, Kinkade’s got their money’s worth), and, well, it was indeed one of the most bizarre games in recent memory, playoff of otherwise.

“That was crazy,” MRA coach Herbert Davis said. “I’m glad that one is over with. Now we’ve got to turn our focus to next week, and get ready for that one.”

Next week is now this week. And Davis, of course, was referring to this Friday’s MAIS Division I-AAAA championship game at Mississippi College’s Robinson-Hale Stadium against familiar foe and rival Jackson Prep. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. It marks the third consecutive year MRA and Prep have met in the title game.

No. 2 Prep, seeking its fifth straight state championship, defeated top-ranked and previously undefeated PCS 24-21 in Friday’s other semifinal game staged in Hattiesburg to earn its spot in the title game.

Prep has won 11 straight over MRA, including a 34-7 victory in Madison in mid-September. That game was tied 7-7 with just under three minutes remaining in the first half when Jacob Crawley raced 54 yards for a touchdown – starting a string of 27 unanswered points as Prep won going away. MRA’s last win in the series came in the 2010 postseason.

“If our guys can’t get ready for this game, we just need to go ahead and pack it up and eat Thanksgiving turkey early,” Davis said. “It’s time to step up . . . this is three years in a row now. . . and win it and come back with a championship, no matter who we are playing.”

MRA, ranked No. 3 in The Clarion-Ledger Academy AAAA poll, improved to 10-3. The Patriots have now won six straight since suffering back-to-back losses to then top-ranked Prep and PCS midway through the season. Their average margin of victory during that stretch is 18 points.

It marked the final home game for eight MRA seniors. One of those was running back Andrew Berry, who totaled 200 yards in total offense (122 rushing, 78 receiving) to go along with two touchdown catches – both coming during a less than two-minute stretch in the second quarter. He hauled in a 2-yard scoring pass from quarterback Hunter Hulsey with 5 minutes, 26 seconds remaining before halftime, then was also on the receiving end of a perfectly-executed 32-yard scoring strike from Correro on a bubble throwback play to put MRA ahead 35-14.

“It felt good to win this last one at home,” Berry said. “It was a great team effort.”

Hulsey completed 17 of 20 passes for 246 yards in the first half, and finished 18 of 21 for 270 yards as Davis opted to throw just one pass in the second half. The sophomore signal caller threw back-to-back touchdown passes to Correro (11 and 15 yards) on the Patriots’ first two possessions to spark the lopsided victory.

Correro, who has been slowed at times by lingering foot injuries, had only one touchdown reception in MRA’s first 12 games. On this night, he caught two and threw for another.

“Once I caught the ball from Hulsey, I looked up and there wasn’t anybody in (Berry’s) area code,” Correro said. “I just threw it out there and let him go get it. I couldn’t really see much, I just threw it out there. I saw the safety shift over, but I really didn’t know where (Berry) was. I knew where he was supposed to be . . . we ran it a few times in practice . . . fortunately we executed it pretty well.”

The offense executed well as a whole, especially in the first half. MRA came close to a school record with 542 yards of total offense, 413 coming in the first half. The Patriots amassed a school-record 31 first downs, 23 coming in the first half.

“A lot of games this season we have struggled to get things going in the first half, but tonight we came out firing on all cylinders,” said Hulsey, who has now thrown for just over 2,500 yards to go along with 29 touchdown passes against only three interceptions.

Said Davis: “It was a great first half. That one onside kick kind of backfired on us, and they had the one big run, but other than that we played really good. They really never stopped us the first half. The second half we were really trying to kill the clock and get out of here with the win. I thought we did a really good job of mixing it up. We had way too many penalties again (14-130 yards), but we kept bailing ourselves out with some good throws and some good catches. So I’m proud of that. We’re going to need every bit of that next week.”

MRA’s running back-by-committee approach worked well once again as Berry (14 carries, 122 yards), William Milam (13-66) and Jake Reeves (7-61) combined for 249 yards on the ground. Reeves had a pair of short touchdown runs – one in the first half, the other in the second – and Milam capped the scoring with a 9-yard scamper in the waning minutes of the game.

“I thought as the game went on, in the second half, we had some good runs,” Davis said. “Look, they knew it was coming, too. They had nine people down in the box, basically blitzing, and our guys did a good job of picking them up. Our backs were able to find some creases, and get some big runs out of it. It’s like I’ve told my guys from the get-go, if we can execute, and don’t hurt ourselves with penalties and turnovers, we’ve got a chance against anybody. And that’s what we have to believe going into next week’s game.”

MRA is averaging 32.7 points per game. The Patriots have now scored 40 or more points five times this season, and they have eclipsed 30 or more points eight times. Many of those points (159 to be exact) have come following turnovers by the other team. The Patriots have come away with 33 takeaways this season – 25 fumble recoveries, 8 interceptions. While the defense didn’t force a turnover on Friday, MRA came up with two takeaways on special teams. Both coming courtesy of onside kicks.

The first followed Correro’s first touchdown catch in the first quarter; the second followed the first of Berry’s two touchdown grabs in the second quarter. On the second one, kicker Carson Lindsey actually recovered the ball himself in the air on the ricochet after it pelted a Copiah player from short range. Each time, the takeaways led to MRA touchdowns.

MRA has recovered four of 10 onside kicks in its last two games. It did backfire on the Patriots once Friday, as Copiah recovered the second onside kick attempt and raced 48 yards for a touchdown late in the first quarter to pull to within seven points.

“Truth be told, a couple of them were supposed to be going deep and they just happened to hit somebody and we got lucky and got them,” Davis said. “The bottom line is we’re trying not to give them a return. When we did kick the ball through we put it inside the 35-yard line or so, and that’s what our goal is. The ones we did get, those are turnovers. And two of those were planned. That’s big because it gives us the ball back.”

Maintaining possession, and scoring points, will be imperative if MRA hopes to keep up with a Jackson Prep team with a high-powered offense featuring running backs Jerrion Ealy and Jacob Crawley. Crawley scampered for 187 yards and three touchdowns in Prep’s regular season win over MRA. Ealy, considered the top player in Mississippi in the class of 2019, had a 17-yard touchdown run and also caught a 55-yard pass to set up another touchdown in the earlier meeting.

MRA’s defense has allowed 14 or fewer points seven times this season, and seven points or less four times.

“We know Prep has a good team,” MRA linebacker Samuel Shufelt said. “We’re going to have to come ready to practice this week, be focused, and prepare better so that when Friday comes we can do a better job and hopefully win it.”