For the first time since 2015, the Mary Persons Bulldogs failed to reach the state quarterfinals after losing 38-14 at home to Madison County in the second round of the playoffs.

MP never led against the Red Raiders, falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter against an explosive Madison County triple-option attack. Although MP trimmed its deficit to seven early in the third quarter, the Red Raiders finished with 17 unanswered points to close out the 24-point win. It was only the second playoff win in the 63-year program history of Madison County football.

Meanwhile, the 2019 Bulldogs finished the season with a 6-6 overall record (3-2 in Region 2-AAAA). It’s only the sixth time in the last 57 seasons dating back to 1963 that MP has failed to win at least seven games. MP also allowed the most points in a single season in school history in 2019, giving up 368 points, which eclipsed the previous worst mark of 253 points by 115. MP also established a new post-World War II record for most average points per game allowed at 30.67, breaking the previous record of 25.3 points allowed by more than five points.

MP fell behind just two plays into the game when Madison County quarterback Colby Smith floated a pass down the left slot over the head of MP safety Malikk Harris. Red Raiders’ running back Martavian Cooper, lined up at receiver, made a fingertip grab and outraced Harris to the end zone for a 72-yard touchdown. Camden Jordan’s extra point made it 7-0 Madison County just 56 seconds into the game.

MP then advanced into Madison County territory when the Bulldogs faced 4th-and-1 at the Red Raiders’ 30-yard-line. MP ran a successful toss sweep left to Rico Harden, but after crossing the first down line the senior was stripped by Madison County defensive end Hunter Samples. The Red Raiders’ Kiya Hubbard fell on the fumble at MP’s 26-yard-line, and Madison County’s vaunted offense took the field a second time.

Madison County got its second big play on the first snap of the drive when fullback Dayton Gresham burst up the middle for 34 yards across midfield. Seven plays later, Madison County faced 4th-and-3 at MP’s 22-yard-line. Smith barely corralled a high snap by batting it to himself. However, the mishap allowed MP’s defensive line to run past him, and the senior quarterback was able to sprint left and find space down the sideline for a 21-yard gain to the Dogs’ one-yard-line. On the next play, Gresham capped a 9-play, 74-yard drive that lasted 4:36 with a one-yard TD dive up the middle. Jordan’s extra point put Madison County in front 14-0 with 2:52 left in the first quarter.

The teams then traded three-and-outs before MP’s offense finally got on track. Facing 4th-and-1 at Madison County’s 47-yard-line, Harden took a direct snap out of the shotgun and spun left for a two-yard gain to move the chains. On the next play, MP hit its first big play of the game when quarterback Logan Hickman connected with tight end Andre Jackson on an out route near the right sideline. Jackson did the rest, sprinting for a 45-yard touchdown with 9:49 left in the second quarter. Tripp Shipman’s extra point trimmed MP’s deficit to seven at 14-7.

But Madison County would answer on its next series. The Red Raiders marched 66 yards in seven plays, all runs, en route to another score. Cooper made a highlight reel run to cap the drive, cutting left to shake MP defensive end Tra Jones and then darting through traffic for a 31-yard score. Jordan’s extra point put Madison County ahead 21-7 with 6:10 remaining in the second quarter.

MP went three-and-out on its next series with Hickman missing an open Adrian Hughley in the left slot on third down. The Red Raiders then threatened to add to their lead, crossing midfield again. However, MP’s defense stiffened, getting a key combined sack by Thomas Warren and Lamont Jones and then a third-down run stop by Sherriod Jordan to thwart the drive. But MP was only able to muster one first down on its final series of the first half, and Madison County took a 14-point lead at 21-7 into halftime.

The Red Raiders more than doubled MP in total yardage in the first half with 250 to the Dogs’ 114, including a 163 to 39 advantage on the ground.

But the Bulldogs got the ball first to start the third quarter, and MP wasted little time getting back into the game. Harden ran for 19 yards on the opening play of the second half. Then, on the next play, Jackson provided one of MP’s top highlights of the season, catching a pass from Hickman near the left sideline, hurdling one Red Raiders’ defender and then sidestepping a second one en route to a 52-yard gain to the Madison County eight-yard-line. On the very next play, Harden took a handoff left before juking a Red Raiders’ safety for an eight-yard touchdown run. Shipman’s extra point trimmed MP’s deficit again to seven at 21-14 just 49 seconds into the third quarter.

With momentum shifting in the home team’s direction, MP head coach Brian Nelson called for an onside kick, but Dogs’ kicker Trippe Moore, who recovered the kick, was determined to have touched the ball one yard too soon. Despite Madison County getting the ball at MP’s 49-yard-line after the miscue, the Dogs’ defense bowed up and forced a three-and-out. With a chance to tie, MP’s offense instead went three-and-out as well, setting up Madison County in excellent field position at Mary Persons’ 35-yard-line. Another circus run by Cooper, a 12-yarder in which he spun around one Dogs’ defender and hurdled a second, advanced Madison County to the 23-yard-line. However, MP’s Jackson, for the second straight week, stripped an offensive player clean, grabbing the ball away from Smith to give MP possession at its own 30-yard-line.

Harden then rushed for a total of 46 yards on a pair of carries to advance MP to the Red Raiders’ 24-yard-line. However, three plays later the Bulldogs faced a 4th-and-7 at Madison County’s 21-yard-line. Hickman bootlegged left, where he faced intense pressure off the edge from the Red Raiders’ Hubbard. With Hubbard in his face, Hickman nearly delivered a spectacular throw into the back left corner of the end zone, but the pass was a couple feet too far for outstretched MP receiver Dennis Swain, turning the ball over on downs.

The two teams again traded three-and-outs before Madison County made its second major miscue of the second half. Running back Ty’quaveon Chappell mishandled an errant Smith pitch, and MP’s William Stewart dove on the fumble at the Madison County 27-yard-line on the first play of the fourth quarter. After Harden was stopped for a loss of six yards on first down, Hickman tried to connect with Harden on a deep ball down the left sideline on second down. Although it initially appeared Harden had come down with a catch inbounds, the referees ruled that the senior bobbled the ball. Two plays later, MP faced 4th-and-16 at the Madison County 33-yard-line, and MP offensive coordinator Jason Morrow dialed up the same play. Again, it initially seemed Harden caught a jump ball down the left sideline, but he was deemed out of bounds and MP again turned it over on downs.

This time, the Red Raiders’ offense made the Bulldogs pay for not finishing off their drive. Against a tired MP defense, Madison County drove 67 yards in 12 plays, including 11 runs, eating up 6:46 of clock. The Red Raiders converted a pair of key first downs on the series, including a 10-yard completion from Smith to Cooper along the left sideline on Madison County’s lone pass attempt of the second half. Gresham ended the drive with a one-yard walk-in touchdown, and Jordan’s extra point put the Red Raiders’ ahead 28-14 with just 4:11 to play.

In a last gasp effort to get back into the game, Hickman threw late over the middle, and his pass was intercepted by the free safety Smith and returned about 50 yards to MP’s 23-yard-line. Two plays later Gresham had his third touchdown of the game on a 17-yard scamper up the middle during which an MP safety made a half-hearted attempt to keep the husky fullback out of the end zone. Jordan’s extra point try was good, and Madison County took a 35-14 advantage with 3:27 left in the game.

The Red Raiders then added to their lead after MP’s D.J. Martinez inexplicably failed to field a kickoff, allowing Madison County to recover the ball at MP’s 20-yard-line. Cooper appeared to score his third touchdown two plays later, hurdling another MP defender, but the TD was wiped off the board due to a holding penalty. The Red Raiders were eventually forced to settle for a field goal as Jordan banged home a 32-yarder with 54 seconds left for the final 38-14 margin.

For the game, Madison County outgained MP in total yards 361 to 245, including a 264 to 105 edge on the ground. Gresham led all rushers with 122 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries. Cooper also had a banner night for the Red Raiders, leading Madison County in receiving with two receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown while adding 92 yards and another score on eight carries on the ground. Smith was Madison County’s top passer, completing 2 of 3 pass attempts for 82 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 45 yards on 15 carries.

For MP, Hickman completed 11 of 26 passes for 140 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Harden was MP’s top rusher with 100 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries in his final high school game. Jackson, who was also suiting up for the final time as a Bulldog, had the first 100-yard receiving game of his MP career, catching a team-best four passes for 104 yards and a touchdown.

Nelson said MP’s roller coaster 2019 campaign was a “growing experience” for coaches and players alike.

“I think the success is that we’re even playing tonight,” Nelson said. “I think at times during the year we looked like we wouldn’t even get to this point. I really thought we had one more game in us. I knew this was going to be tough because of what they (Red Raiders) do offensively, but I thought we’d have one more game in us. I judge it by how they hung together and persevered. It may not have looked like it, but I felt like we played some of our better football late in the year after that West Laurens game. And there were a couple, the Lovett and Perry games, that we could have won. But I think it was a learning and growing experience for everybody, for the players, for me as a coach. It’s not always going to be rosy and good and 12-0 and beating people 40-0. It ain’t always going to be like that. And we’re going to have to grind it out for a couple more years. I like this ninth grade group. I like the eighth graders. We’re going to have to grind and claw and scratch for the next couple of years and just get back to work and get some of these young guys going. Some of these ninth graders this year are going to have to play next year as sophomores and just keep pressing on. I’m really proud of these seniors. Their whole careers they’ve been on really good football teams. And they fought and persevered. We knew it was going to be a battle with what we had coming back and our inexperience. But I’m real proud of them. I don’t judge it as a failure by any means. They did a lot of good things at times. We just didn’t do them consistently enough throughout the season to win enough games.”