Lee Tanner
Lee Tanner
MADISON – The halftime show was delayed Friday night as there were technical difficulties in getting the music to play through the sound system.

It was only fitting on this night. MRA’s football team surprisingly experienced technical difficulties of its own for the better part of 2 ½ quarters.

The halftime show eventually went on as planned, thanks to tech savvy MRA alum Atul Aggarwal. It took a while, but the Patriots finally figured things out, too, stringing together 26 unanswered points over the last 19-plus minutes to rally for a harder-than-anticipated 39-14 victory over upstart Hartfield at Patriot Field.

“We stunk it up in the first half, and it only got worse for us in the third quarter,” said MRA head coach Herbert Davis, who picked up his 32nd win with the Patriots. “When you don’t come ready to play that’s what happens. We weren’t focused. I don’t know why. But fortunately we were able to flip the switch, get focused, and start playing better. The defense came up big for us, so did the special teams. And we finally got some things going offensively in the second half. That was our first big letdown of the year. I’m just glad we were able to battle back the way we did.”

MRA could not have asked for a better start to the game as William Milam returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. The rout was on right? Wrong. Hartfield, a heavy underdog, had other ideas. After Milam’s second touchdown of the night – a 28-yard scamper late in the first quarter- gave MRA a 13-0 lead, the Hawks out-played and out-scrapped the heavily-favored Patriots over the course of the next 18 minutes. They cut the deficit to 13-7 on a touchdown midway through the second quarter, then took their first lead, 14-13, on an 80-yard touchdown run 4 ½ minutes into the third quarter.

Things were not looking very good for the home team at that point. Call it what you will - a hangover from last week’s disappointing loss at Briarcrest, a case of overlooking an inferior opponent, or both. Whatever the case, MRA was on the ropes. That’s when the Patriots’ special teams and defense stepped up to save the day. Joe Perkins picked off a pass that was deflected at the line of scrimmage by Stone Blanton and returned it 12 yards for a touchdown to put MRA back in front, 19-14, and spark the comeback. It was all Patriots after that.

“That was definitely one of the biggest plays of the game,” Milam said. “We were able to get the lead back, and we gained some momentum. Things had not gone so well for us up to that point. I’m not sure what it was. . . I think we kind of overlooked them. You have to give them a lot of credit, too. They came in and battled and gave us a good game, a better game than most people expected. But we finally got it together in the second half and came away with the win.”

MRA improved to 3-1. The Patriots play their next three games on the road, starting with a trip to Gallman to take on Copiah next Friday night.

Hartfield, which made the jump from Class AAA to Class AAAA-Division II this year, dropped to 0-4. The Hawks have been outscored 134-55 in those four games.

The final touchdown of the night also came courtesy of the MRA defense. Defensive end Sam Shufelt sacked the quarterback, causing a fumble inside the Hartfield 10-yard line. Ridge Futral first picked up the loose pigskin and tried to make his way into the end zone, but he fumbled. The ball was then picked up by Lew Davis, who also fumbled but was able to fall on the ball in the end zone with just over seven minutes remaining. It wasn’t a classic scoop-and-score, but it got the job done nonetheless.

"I came all the way across the field to get that one," Davis said. "We both fumbled the ball after we got it, luckily I was able to get it back in the end zone and score."

The Patriots’ defense gave up a pair of touchdowns, but it also scored a couple. Defensive coordinator Danny White’s crew also came up with a stop on 4th-and-8 from the MRA 12-yard line on the final play of the first half, denying a touchdown and preserving a 13-7 halftime lead. Perkins’ INT and Davis’ fumble recovery mark MRA’s sixth and seventh takeaway of the season, respectively. The Patriots have 41 takeaways in their last 17 games dating back to last season, leading to 173 points.

“Coach White preaches turnovers every day,” Perkins said. “It’s something we work on every day. If the ball is on the ground it’s ours, and if the ball is up in the air it’s ours. That’s something we take pride in . . . getting turnovers.”

Factor in Milam’s kickoff return, and MRA’s defense and special teams actually outscored Hartfield’s offense. Breckon Young’s 47-yard punt in the third quarter was huge, as well. It pinned the Hawks inside their own 10-yard line, setting the table for Perkins’ interception return. Hartfield also misplayed the ensuing kickoff, allowing the ball to go out of bounds on its own 12-yard line. The Hawks went 3-and-out, and after a short punt MRA was able to capitalize when quarterback Pierce Smith (16 of 22, 134 yards, 1 TD) connected with Lee Tanner on a 20-yard scoring strike for a 26-14 Patriots’ lead just prior to the end of the third quarter.

“I had been telling the coaches it was open all night,” said Tanner, who finished with 8 catches for 72 yards and the touchdown. “Pierce made a good throw and I was able to go up and get it.”

Tanner came up with several big catches on MRA’s following drive, which ended in Milam’s 12-yard touchdown run, giving the Patriots a 33-14 cushion. That run capped a big night for Milam, a junior running back who rushed for 77 yards on nine carries. He finished with three touchdowns – two from scrimmage and one on special teams. The kickoff return for a touchdown was the first of his career, to go along with two punt returns for touchdowns.

“It was wide open along our sideline,” Milam said. “All I had to do was juke that last guy, and I was gone.”

MRA finished with a season-low 285 yards total offense - 151 yards rushing, 134 yards passing. The Patriots fumbled the ball twice, once early in the first quarter inside Hartfield's 20-yard line and the other early in the third quarter at the Hawks' 20-yard line. After totaling only 101 yards, six first downs and one offensive touchdown in the first half, MRA's offense responded with 183 yards, 12 first downs and two touchdowns in the second half.

MRA's defense allowed the long touchdown run on Hartfield's first play from scrimmage in the third quarter. However, that's about all the Hawks managed in the second half. They actually finished with only 72 net yards in the second half and one other first down other than the scoring run.

"It was a tale of two halves," Davis said. "We sputtered some tonight. We've got to get back to work and get better."