lesli and brian nelson

Lesli Nelson hugs her husband Mary Persons coach Brian Nelson after the Bulldogs’ come-from-behind win over Eastside on Friday. (Photo courtesy Conni Tane)

After one of the most thrilling postseason victories in Mary Persons’ storied football history, the Bulldogs will return home to host Madison County at Dan Pitts Stadium at 7:30 p.m. on Friday with a berth in the state quarterfinals on the line.

The Bulldogs and Red Raiders have never met. Madison County, the No. 4 seed from Region 8-AAAA, enters Friday’s contest on a high, coming off of its first state playoff victory in the program’s 63-year history in a 27-20 upset road win at Ridgeland last Friday.

According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the run-heavy Red Raiders went on a 75-yard drive that lasted more than five minutes, which broke a 20-20 tie and culminated in a five-yard Dayton Gresham touchdown run to give Madison County a 27-20 lead with 1:55 to play against Ridgeland. The Red Raiders’ defense then locked up the game with a late interception. The Red Raiders attempted a pair of onside kicks in the contest, recovering one to open the second half. Madison County running back Martavian Cooper scored the Red Raiders’ first three touchdowns in the win, two on the ground from 46 and 16 yards, respectively, and one through the air on a 20-yard TD pass from Colby Smith.

If MP beats Madison County, the Bulldogs would face the winner of the second-round contest between Sandy Creek, the No. 2 seed from Region 5-AAAA, and Americus-Sumter, the No. 4 seed from Region 1-AAAA, on Friday, Nov. 29. If Sandy Creek wins, the Bulldogs would travel to Tyrone, but if Americus-Sumter wins, MP would host for the second straight week.

Madison County, 5-6 (1-3 in Region 8-AAAA), is led by head coach Chris Smith, who has a 28-54 mark in seven seasons at the helm. Smith has taken Madison County to the state playoffs in two of the past three years, just the third and fourth times, respectively, that the Red Raiders have qualified for the postseason.

The 2019 Red Raiders average 19.1 points per game while giving up 25.6 points per game. The Bulldogs and Red Raiders have no common opponents. Madison County fell 18-8 at AAAAA Cedar Shoals to open the season before winning back-to-back games, 26-20 at AAAAAA Habersham Central and 21-20 vs. AAAAAA Apalachee. The Red Raiders then were blown out at home 32-9 by AAA Hart County before bouncing back with a 35-7 home win over AAA East Jackson. Madison County then dropped three straight, 42-14 at A Commerce in a non-region contest and 33-14 vs. North Oconee and 14-7 at St. Pius X in a pair of region contests. The Red Raiders then got their lone region victory in a 35-33 shootout home win over Stephens County before closing the regular season with a 42-14 road loss at Oconee County.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are seeking their fourth straight appearance in the state quarterfinals. MP has previously advanced to the state quarters four consecutive years on only one prior occasion: from 1977-1980.

The Bulldogs’ maligned defense, which has yielded a school record 330 points, came up big against Eastside, forcing a pair of three-and-outs in the fourth quarter before stopping the Eagles in the red zone to polish off the comeback win. Linebackers Thomas Warren and Andre Jackson are MP’s top two tacklers, having teamed up for 153 stops, including 76 solo tackles, 15.5 tackles-for-a-loss and four sacks.

The MP offense is led by freshman signal-caller Logan Hickman, who has passed for 1,268 yards with a 54.3 percent completion rate along with 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Hickman, who has started the last seven games, had perhaps his best night to date in Friday’s 28-21 win over Eastside, throwing the game-winning TD pass to senior receiver Trippe Moore with 35 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

Assisting Hickman in the backfield is MP’s most talented all-around performer, Rico Harden, who is second on the team in rushing with 614 yards and 10 touchdowns and first on the squad in receiving with 441 yards and five more scores.

Moore, one of 23 MP seniors, said he’s thrilled his classmates will have a chance to play at least one more home game after getting pounded 52-7 to West Laurens on Senior Night.

“The last time we played in Dan Pitts Stadium I had a bad taste in my mouth,” Moore said. “I wanted to have another game in there, and I’m glad God has given us this opportunity.”