RICO

Mary Persons senior Rico Harden (No. 22) made one of the Dogs’ lone highlight plays in an otherwise dismal 52-7 home loss to West Laurens when he jumped over receiver Brent Carr to intercept this A.J. Mathis pass attempt in the end zone for a second-quarter touchback. (Photo/Will Davis)

 

The Mary Persons Bulldogs’ program-best 23-game region winning streak came to an ugly end when MP was walloped 52-7 at home on Senior Night by first-place West Laurens on Friday.

The loss was MP’s first in Region 2-AAAA play in nearly five years when the Dogs’ fell 21-14 at home to the Raiders in the regular season finale on Nov. 7, 2014. Despite a driving rainstorm throughout the second half, the Raiders tallied 568 total yards in amassing seven touchdowns, six in the game’s final 25 minutes.

West Laurens’ 52 points were the most an opponent has ever recorded at historic Dan Pitts Stadium. The previous record was 49 points scored by LaGrange in a 49-0 shutout of the Bulldogs in 2001. The 52 points allowed also tied an MP program record for most points allowed in a single game, matching a 52-0 road loss to R.E. Lee in 1943. Meanwhile, the 45-point total margin of defeat was MP’s worst loss since the aforementioned defeat to LaGrange in 2001 and the program’s second-worst loss since falling 50-0 to Morgan County during a winless 1961 campaign.

The loss was also MP’s fourth of the regular season, making the 2019 squad just the fifth Bulldogs’ team since 1966 to lose four or more regular season games.

MP, 4-4 overall (2-1 in Region 2-AAAA), still has remote hopes of winning the program’s record fifth straight region championship, but the Bulldogs will have to win their final two regular season games, both on the road, while West Laurens would have to lose its final two, both at home. The Bulldogs do still have the inside track to the region’s No. 2 seed, which would guarantee MP at least one home playoff game for the eighth consecutive season. If MP wins its final two contests, starting with Friday’s showdown at Perry, the Bulldogs would lock up the second seed. West Laurens, 7-1 overall (3-0 in Region 2-AAAA) and Perry, 5-3 overall (3-0 in Region 2-AAAA), currently share first place with a head-to-head showdown to come in their regular season finale on Nov. 8.

MP head coach Brian Nelson said after the game he didn’t want to discuss the blowout defeat.

“It’s over. There ain’t nothing we can do about it now,” Nelson said. “It’s not the way we wanted it to go. We’re just not gonna talk about it anymore. It’s over with. I don’t wanna hear one person say a word about it. We’ve got to press forward. We’ve got to come back to work. We’ve got to come back to practice. There’s still something out there we can get. It’d be nice to be the two seed or the three seed or something like that and go do stuff. We’re at a point now where this thing can go two ways. It can go in a positive way or it can go in a negative way. It’s up to them (MP players) and their decision on what they want to do. But I told them we’re not going to talk about it anymore. If anybody wants to point the finger or blame anybody, they can blame me because it wasn’t good.”

The MP offense was especially anemic on Friday, accumulating just 138 total yards, including 54 on the ground. MP freshman quarterback Logan Hickman experienced his first major setback as a starter, throwing interceptions on three consecutive passes from late in the second quarter to early in the third quarter. West Laurens’ offense turned all three picks into touchdowns as the Raiders turned a 7-7 game seconds before halftime into a 28-7 advantage less than five minutes into the third quarter. Raiders’ senior quarterback A.J. Mathis had a huge night in his third and final career start against the Bulldogs, completing 12 of 24 passes for 221 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Raiders’ running game also dominated the second half, accounting for 347 yards and five touchdowns, all in the last two quarters.

After three straight Mathis incompletions led to an early West Laurens punt, it was the Bulldogs who nearly got on the scoreboard first. MP went on a 15-play drive that lasted just over seven minutes, which included Hickman’s signature individual play of the season, a spin move that eluded two Raiders’ pass rushers and led to a 15-yard scramble. However, MP could get no closer than West Laurens’ 10-yard-line as the Dogs’ offense stalled on a failed third-down throw into the end zone intended for Moore. But normally reliable MP kicker Julian Rivera shanked his 29-yard field goal try short and right, and the game remained scoreless.

After taking possession at their own 20-yard-line, the Raiders then marched meticulously down the field. Despite a pair of holding penalties negating big plays, Mathis connected five times on the series for a total of 59 yards to favorite receiver Brent Carr. The final hook-up resulted in a 13-yard touchdown on a left screen in which Carr dove headfirst across the goal line. Cam Coup booted the extra point to put the Raiders in front 7-0 with 11:09 left in the second quarter.

MP’s offense went three-and-out on the Dogs’ next possession, but it was MP’s defense that would tie the game moments later. Mathis made his first of two critical first-half miscues when he threw behind his receiver near midfield. MP senior cornerback Rico Harden, playing his final regular season home game, caught Mathis’ errant throw at MP’s 45-yard-line and raced 55 yards down the right sideline for a score. Harden’s TD was made possible by a bonecrushing lead block administered by his younger brother Kelvin Harden at the Raiders’ 10-yard-line. Rivera’s extra point tied the contest at 7 with 8:32 left in the second quarter.

In an ensuing possession that lasted nearly seven minutes, West Laurens advanced past midfield to MP’s 30-yard-line, converting a fourth down along the way. However, Mathis fired into double coverage in the back middle of the end zone while trying to force a pass to Carr, and Rico Harden jumped up and made a leaping interception to keep the game knotted at 7.

Thanks to a West Laurens pass interference flag, the Bulldogs moved to the Raiders’ 43-yard-line with just under a minute left in the first half. But with the Dogs poised to enter halftime either tied or with the lead, Hickman threw the first of three straight interceptions on an overthrown screen pass brought in by West Laurens linebacker Devonte Royals. With 33 seconds left before halftime, West Laurens then went for the jugular. Mathis fired a deep completion down the right seam to a wide-open Bradley Wilson for a 50-yard touchdown pass. Coup’s extra point with 24 seconds left in the second period gave West Laurens a 14-7 halftime lead.

After a thrilling halftime show featuring the Bulldogs’ Brigade Marching Band and fireworks, the Dogs got the ball first in the second half. However, it began pouring rain, sending many fans scurrying for shelter and markedly changing the dynamics of the game.

On the second play of the third quarter, Hickman threw a slick ball directly to West Laurens linebacker Exzavier Lewis, camped out along the MP sideline. Lewis’ brief return set the Raiders’ up with a short field at the Dogs’ 21-yard-line. The Raiders got tricky on their first play of the second half, calling for a halfback pass from Daniel Dorsey to Wilson. The Raiders’ tight end cut off his route and made a spectacular catch on an underthrown ball, purportedly getting his hand underneath the pigskin and batting it to himself for an 18-yard gain down to the MP 3.

Three plays later, Dorsey ran left behind an explosive lead block by fullback D’Eryk Jackson for a one-yard touchdown run to put West Laurens up 21-7 with 9:28 left in the third quarter.

Two plays later, things got worse for MP when Hickman threw his third interception in as many passes. The freshman QB floated up a jump ball over the middle intended for Rico Harden, but Royals outwrestled Harden for the football to record his second pick of the contest.

Starting again in Dogs’ territory at MP’s 47-yard-line, it took West Laurens four plays to hit paydirt. Running back Shonta Burney Jr. took a Mathis handoff and darted right before cutting back left across the field and racing just inside the front left pylon for a 33-yard touchdown run. Coup’s extra point put West Laurens ahead 28-7 with 7:17 left in the third quarter, and seemingly in a flash the Bulldogs went from tied and dry to trailing by 21 and soaking wet.

With a feisty West Laurens team smelling blood, the onslaught would only get worse. After an MP three-and-out, the Raiders marched 54 yards in six plays, capped by a five-yard outside left touchdown run by Dorsey in which Jackson threw another rib-rocking lead block. Coup’s extra point put West Laurens in front 35-7 with 3:04 left in the third quarter.

After yet another Dogs’ three-and-out, the Raiders nearly put the GHSA mercy rule in effect on MP at home for the first time in recent memory when Mathis hooked up with Tyler Franks on an 18-yard touchdown with seconds left in the third quarter. However, the play was nullified by a Raiders’ penalty, and the mercy rule was never invoked. Therefore, West Laurens ruthlessly went right back to dominating MP with Coup drilling a 41-yard field goal with 11:44 left in the fourth quarter to put the Raiders ahead 38-7.

After a season-best 64-yard punt by Trippe Moore pinned West Laurens back at its own 13-yard-line, it only took two plays for the Raiders to add to their lead. Running back Christian Covin found a hole on the right side. He went untouched until he blew threw an arm tackle at midfield by MP’s Kelvin Harden, racing away from the Dogs’ defense for an 87-yard touchdown. Coup’s extra point gave West Laurens a whopping 45-7 lead with 8:30 left in the fourth quarter.

After MP’s fourth straight punt, it was backup running back Lorenzo Turner’s turn to shine as the Raiders’ junior exploded 77 yards down the left sideline for yet another Raiders’ touchdown. Coup’s seventh and final PAT of the game put West Laurens ahead 52-7 for the game’s final margin. Although MP finally mustered two first downs, their only two of the second half, on their final possession of the game, the Bulldogs could not advance past the Raiders’ 49-yard-line and were forced to punt for the sixth and final time.

Hickman completed just 10 of 24 passes for 84 yards and three interceptions. Meanwhile, Rico Harden tied for MP’s high rusher with just 18 yards on 11 carries. Moore led MP in receiving with 27 yards on three receptions.

As for the Raiders, four West Laurens’ backs rushed for 62 or more yards, led by Covin, who ran for 126 yards on 11 carries. Carr was the Raiders’ top receiver with 100 yards and one touchdown on eight catches, seven in the first half.

Twenty-three MP seniors played the final regular season home game of their Dogs’ careers on Friday. The 2019 senior class has compiled a 38-11 career record to date, including three region championships.