John Cartwright leaps through defenders as he tucks away the ball.
John Cartwright leaps through defenders as he tucks away the ball.
MADISON – Maybe MRA should try this pink thing every week.
   The Patriots, dressed in blue jerseys accessorized by all things pink, snapped a three-game losing skid in a major way on Friday night, blowing out visiting No. 5 Oak Forest 30-3 at Patriot Field.

“We’re going to have to think about wearing pink again next week,” quipped MRA coach Hebert Davis.

While MRA made a fashion statement of sorts – donning pink in recognition of a school-wide service project “Fund for the girls” – the Patriots made a big-picture statement, as well. That is, despite the recent struggles, they’re not dead and buried yet. After spotting Oak Forest an early field goal, MRA outscored the visiting Yellowjackets 30-0 the rest of the way – 20-0 in the second half after leading 10-3 at halftime.

MRA’s defense dominated from the outset, turning in its best performance of the season. The Patriots allowed just 63 total net yards – 41 rushing, 22 passing – and four first downs. In the second half, Oak Forest managed only two net yards and one first down. On the night, defensive coordinator Danny White’s crew recorded 11 negative yardage plays totaling minus 44 yards, and it held the Yellowjackets to zero yardage on 15 plays – 11 incomplete passes, and four rushes.

Oak Forest only crossed midfield once the entire game with its offense. The Yellowjackets’ field goal came after an interception gave them the ball at the MRA 19-yard line. So, technically twice, but you get the picture. Total domination, against an offense which came in averaging 26.1 points per game. It was quite a turnaround for a MRA defense which had allowed an average of 25.5 points per game on the season, and 120 total points over the course of the last three games.

“The defense set the tone the whole game,” Davis said. “They gave us the 10 points we had in the first half . . . tremendous job by them. And, when you look at it, we had some injuries on that side, so we had to have some young guys step up and play and they did a great job. With the play-action stuff (Oak Forest) runs, if you don’t stay disciplined they can hit some big plays on you. They’re a physical team. There were some sparks flying out there tonight at times.”

There were very few sparks flying offensively speaking for MRA in the first half. And that’s being kind. The Patriots managed only 43 net yards of total offense – 34 rushing, nine passing. However, with a rejuvenated offensive line paving the way, MRA’s offense came alive in the second half, scoring touchdowns on three straight possessions to put the game away. The Patriots compiled 195 yards of total offense over the last 24 minutes (130 rushing, 65 passing), while putting together scoring drives of 64, 39 and 53 yards.

Senior running back Jake Reeves had yet another big night, piling up 139 yards on 29 carries, including touchdown runs of 1, 23 and 14 yards. He also caught two passes for 27 more yards.

“I thought in the second half the offensive line came out and took it over,” Davis said. “We played downhill. It was a good physical statement for us to come out the second half and play like we’re capable of playing. I challenged them at halftime to come out and play with passion. We wanted to come out and be the more physical team, and our guys did that. We tried to line up and run the football in the first half, too, we just didn’t do it. In the second half, we said we’re going to keep it simple, and line up in one formation so that we know where we’re going to be. We really didn’t do anything different. We ran about four plays in the second half on each side of the ball, maybe even three. We tried to get simple and good at it, and come off the dadgum football. We were able to make some plays in the passing game in the second half, too, that we weren’t able to make in the first half, and that was big.”

MRA improved to 6-4 overall and 1-3 in conference play. It marked the Patriots' first win since a 31-28 victory at Class 4A St. Stanislaus nearly a month ago. They were outscored 127-49 during the three-game slide, 67-14 in the second half.

“It’s been a long ride here,” Davis said. “We needed a win. The kids have kept battling, and they’ve continued to practice hard. But you need a little sugar, you know. You need a little something good to happen and we got that tonight.”

Oak Forest, coming off a 21-14 victory over previously unbeaten and then-No. 2 ranked Parklane a week ago that vaulted them into the Academy AAAA poll, dropped to 6-3 and 1-3.

Parklane defeated Jackson Academy 28-21 on Friday night at McComb. That, coupled with MRA’s win over Oak Forest sets up an interesting playoff scenario. The Patriots host PCS this Thursday in the regular season finale, and regardless of the outcome of that game will have to turn around and play the Bobcats the following week in the opening round of the playoffs. The winner of next Thursday night’s game at Patriot Field will host that first round playoff game.

“Tonight was huge for us,” MRA offensive lineman Hayden Barksdale said. “It was a big confidence boost. It’s going to help us get ready for next week’s game against PCS and the playoffs.”

Making Friday night’s outcome even more improbable was the fact MRA was without several key players. Leading receiver Lee Tanner (bum ankle) and second-leading/return specialist rusher William Milam (back) sat out with injuries. In addition, cornerback/wide receiver Joe Perkins (leg) sustained an injury in the first half and did not return. So, defensively, that left MRA with a first-year starter at one corner, a 9th-grader who just moved up from the junior high team at the other corner, another 9th-grader at one safety and a guy playing despite a torn ACL at the other safety position.

“Tremendous,” Davis said. “We felt like we had a good plan. We’ve been playing pretty good with our front folks. We thought if we could fix our secondary, even with what we looked like tonight, we would be okay, and we were. I thought Coach White did a great job of calling different coverages to help Drew (Peacock) out some, and he brought some pressure at the right times. He called a heckuva game.”

MRA, which thrives off takeaways, had only one in its last two games. The Patriots had two on Friday, both leading to points. Following a beautiful punt by Breckon Young which pinned Oak Forest deep in its own territory early in the second quarter, MRA’s defense forced a quick 3-and-out. The Yellowjackets’ punter failed to catch the snap cleanly, and the Patriots recovered the loose pigskin. Three plays later, Reeves scored from one yard out to give MRA its first lead, 7-3. Oak Forest then fumbled the ensuing kickoff at its own 10-yard line, setting up a 23-yard field goal by Carson Lindsey.

MRA now has 17 takeaways this season – 12 fumble recoveries, 5 interceptions – and 50 over the course of its last 23 games dating back to last season leading to a total of 218 points. As it turns out, those 10 first half points created by the defense/special teams were all the Patriots would need on this night. Oak Forest completed one pass for 7 yards on the opening play of the third quarter – its only completion of the second half and one of only two in the entire game – and managed minus-5 net yards on 15 rushing attempts in the final 24 minutes.

“That was one of our best defensive performances this season for sure,” MRA linebacker Ridge Futral said. “I felt like we really knew what we were doing this week. Even though we lost last week, we gained a lot of confidence and that carried over into this week. We had a couple of busts out in the flats in the first half, so we fixed that. And we had a couple issues with the linebackers not being lined up right, and we were able to fix that, too, in the second half.”

MRA opened the second half with a nine play, 64-yard drive, capped by a 23-yard scoring run from Reeves. Running back/receiver Bailey Rademacher, who has emerged as a key player for MRA as the season has progressed, scored on a 31-yard run three minutes later for a 23-3 Patriots’ lead. Reeves then capped the scoring with a 14-yard jaunt less than two minutes into the fourth quarter.

Reeves, who has been a workhorse, now has rushed for 1,375 yards this season. He’s closing in on the MRA single-season rushing record of 1,444 yards set by Ben Hutton in 2008. Reeves also has a team-leading 15 rushing touchdowns this season to go along with one receiving touchdown. At 2,711 career rushing yards, he’s also got the 3,000-yard career rushing mark in his sights. He has 32 career rushing touchdowns.

“It came down to our offensive line tonight,” Reeves said. “They came out in the second half and played harder. I told them at halftime they were better than the guys they were playing against, and if they would just take the fight to them we were going to win this game. And that’s what they did. They came out and they started attacking more. They took the hit to them. It makes a huge difference for me as a running back when they take the fight forward instead of letting it come to them. It opens up so many more holes. It increases the intensity, and it increases the fight in us. Honestly, it changes the whole game.

Said Barksdale: “We came out with a lot more physicality and intensity the second half and tried to knock them off the football and take control of that game. We hit a groove right at the start of the second half and we were able to run it right down their throats.”