Many felt it would be a blowout, but the Mary Persons Bulldogs were instead pushed all the way down to the final horn as MP held off a dramatic comeback to beat Morrow 29-28 at Dan Pitts Stadium on Friday.
Much like one week earlier when MP took a 22-point lead against Jackson only to see it evaporate entirely, the Bulldogs seized a 23-point lead at 29-6 in the second quarter against the Mustangs. MP’s lead dwindled to nine at halftime as the Mustangs scored a pair of TDs shortly before halftime. Morrow then went on a 98-yard touchdown drive, the longest yielded by an MP defense in recent memory, with just over four minutes left in the game, trimming MP’s lead to just one.
However, just like in the Jackson game when MP broke a tie on a Rico Harden touchdown with 19 seconds left, the Bulldogs responded once again. A dangerous Morrow offense took possession for the final time at its own 49-yard-line with 45 seconds to play. The Mustangs advanced down to the MP 28 with 11 seconds left, but MP senior linebacker Andre Jackson wrapped up a Morrow ball carrier near the line of scrimmage to run out the clock and allow MP to hold on 29-28.
MP head coach Brian Nelson said he’s not worried about style points for his young team, only the final result.
“It’s so hard to win football games,” Nelson said. “We didn’t play great, but we won. At Gainesville, we didn’t play great and we lost. It feels a whole lot better now than it did up there.”
In a nearly even contest, the Bulldogs and Mustangs fittingly ended the game with the same number of total yards with 289 each. In a losing effort, Morrow superstar Jimmy Calloway, a Tennessee commit, had one of the finest nights ever by an opposing player in Dan Pitts Stadium. Calloway, lining up at more than a half-dozen different positions, passed for 66 yards on 7 of 13 attempts, rushed 4 times for 23 yards and a touchdown, caught 3 passes for 83 yards, including a pair of circus grabs, had an interception and a handful of tackles, kicked off 5 times, punted 3 times at an average of nearly 35 yards per punt and returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown.
Early on it seemed like the 2019 contest might be a repeat of the 2018 matchup when MP scored on all but one possession in a 62-12 rout of the Mustangs. The Bulldogs scored on just their fifth play from scrimmage when quarterback Malikk Harris found a wide-open Wyatt Currie running down the left seam and hit him in stride for a 33-yard touchdown. Julian Rivera’s extra point put MP in front 7-0 with 9:36 left in the first quarter.
Currie said MP saw on film an opportunity to pass the ball down the seam when Morrow’s free safety lined up too far on the strong side of the field.
“Well we really prepared all week for the way they cover the over set,” Currie said. “The safety, the linebacker and the corner, they usually shade over toward the side that’s more loaded. We practiced all week that I would go to the other seam because he doesn’t have a good shot at coming over the top and making that play. Really I just ran through the middle, and he didn’t chase. So I was wide open, and it was easy.”
MP then added to its lead quickly when Morrow running back Kyree Miller fumbled a handoff on the Mustangs’ second play from scrimmage, and Currie pounced on the ball at Morrow’s 14-yard-line. On the very next play, MP standout Rico Harden ran outside to the left and rolled over Morrow linebacker Antonio Elder at the goal line for a 14-yard score. Rivera’s extra point put MP ahead 14-0 with 9:24 left in the first quarter.
The two teams then exchanged three-and-outs before Morrow sustained its first drive of the contest. Calloway completed five of six passes for 52 yards to advance the Mustangs down to MP’s 20-yard-line, where Morrow faced a 4th-and-2. The Mustangs appeared to pick up the first down on the ground, but the conversion was negated by a holding penalty. Facing 4th-and-12 at the MP 30, Calloway threw a jump ball intended for Jabari Tucker on the left corner of the field, but MP cornerback Adrian Hughley ably defended the pass to force a turnover on downs.
MP appeared poised to score yet another touchdown on its ensuing drive, but Harden, who eclipsed 200 total yards in each of MP’s first two games, pulled up lame with an apparent foot injury. With Harden out for the remainder of the game, Nelson sent Rivera out to try a career-long 51-yard field goal rather than try to convert a 4th-and-2. Rivera showed Nelson’s faith was justified by drilling a high, true kick straight through the uprights to put MP in front 17-0 with 8:51 left in the second quarter. It was just three yards shy of the longest field goal in MP history, made by Rivera’s older brother Alex in 2017.
But Morrow answered with a 68-yard kickoff return made longer by an MP facemask penalty, enabling the Mustangs to begin their next series at the Dogs’ 13-yard-line. Three plays later, Calloway got Morrow on the scoreboard on a quarterback keeper to the left, scampering 13 yards behind several strong blocks for a touchdown. But on a two-point try, Calloway bobbled the snap and threw the ball out of the back of the end zone, so MP maintained a 17-6 lead with 8:09 left in the second period.
A fortuitous event enabled MP to add to its lead moments later. The Dogs’ offense advanced deep in Morrow territory before Harris rolled right and threw up an ill-advised pass into traffic near the Mustangs’ goal line. Playing free safety, Calloway snagged the interception. However, instead of taking a knee, Calloway curiously reversed field across the back of the end zone at which point a Morrow blocker blindsided an MP player on an illegal crackback block that resulted in an MP safety because the infraction occurred in the end zone. The Morrow miscue gave the Bulldogs a 19-6 edge with 6 minutes left in the first half.
Thanks to the safety, MP got the ball at midfield on its next possession. Although the Morrow defense held just outside the red zone, Rivera, in the best night of his career to date, buried a 40-yard field goal with room to spare to put MP ahead 22-6 with 3:57 left in the second quarter.
Calloway then made another mistake moments later, fumbling a jet sweep handoff, which was recovered by MP’s Thomas Warren at midfield. On the very next play, MP freshman quarterback Logan Hickman found receiver Hughley running free down the left seam just as Currie had done earlier in the game. The hook-up resulted in an easy 50-yard touchdown with 2:22 left in the first half, giving MP a seemingly insurmountable 29-6 lead after another Rivera extra point.
But Morrow had other ideas. After MP’s star linebacker Kelvin Harden was banged up on the ensuing kickoff, Morrow’s Miller ran right through a gaping hole vacated by Harden’s absence on the Mustangs’ next play. The speedy tailback went 68 yards untouched to the end zone. Miller then ran outside right for a two-point conversion, and MP’s lead was trimmed to 29-14 with 2 minutes left before halftime.
MP went three-and-out on their next drive, leading to more Morrow heroics. MP’s Trippe Moore boomed a punt 45 yards down to the Mustangs’ 25-yard-line. However, the ever dangerous Calloway returned the punt up the left sideline, where he narrowly eluded Moore, the last line of defense. Calloway then cut back across the field, smoothly sailing past the MP defense for a 75-yard touchdown with just seven seconds left in the first half. Although the Mustangs failed to convert the two-point try, MP’s lead was suddenly cut to nine at 29-20 at halftime.
Neither team got much going offensively in the second half until late in the third quarter when MP took advantage of excellent starting field position at Morrow’s 42-yard-line. Eight plays later, the Bulldogs faced a 1st-and-goal from the Mustangs’ one-yard-line, looking to re-claim control of the contest. Instead, Harris fumbled a shotgun snap, resulting in a six-yard loss on the final play of the third quarter. Two short runs set up a 4th-and-goal try from Morrow’s two-yard-line, but Harris again appeared to bobble a shotgun snap. The momentary hesitation enabled the Morrow defenders to swarm the MP quarterback, and the Bulldogs were held scoreless.
Starting at their own two-yard-line, the Mustangs, who shifted Calloway to wide receiver in the second half, marched 98 yards on 9 plays against a tired MP defense, eating up 6:36 of clock. The two biggest plays on the series were a pair of spectacular 32-yard catches by Calloway, the first a leaping grab over an MP defender down the right sideline and the second a fully-extended diving snag on a middle post route. Miller then capped the drive with a 25-yard touchdown run in which he dove across the front right pylon for the score. A successful two-point conversion pass narrowed MP’s already precarious lead to just one at 29-28 with 4:06 left in the fourth quarter.
Looking to run out the clock, MP’s offense got a first down on a 13-yard carry by William Stewart to start the drive. However, a crucial false start penalty put the Dogs in long yardage, and MP eventually faced a 4th-and-1 at its own 47-yard-line with 52 seconds to play. Instead of going for it and sealing the game, Nelson elected to punt it back to Morrow since the Mustangs only had one timeout and had not attempted a field goal or extra point all night. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the normally reliable Moore shanked a four-yard punt straight right into the stands in an effort to keep the ball away from the returner Calloway. Rather than having to go 75 or 80 yards for a go-ahead score, Morrow got the ball at its own 49-yard-line. Five plays later, the Mustangs were down to their last shot at MP’s 28-yard-line with 11 seconds left and out of timeouts. Not willing to try a 45-yard, game-winning field goal, the Mustangs instead tried to get off a Hail Mary attempt, but Jackson wrapped up the Morrow quarterback at MP’s 27-yard-line as time ran out.
Moore, who was on the field at free safety when time expired, said of the dramatic ending: “I didn’t feel like we won. I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I was so stressed out. My eyes were so wide, and I was like, ‘Thank God we just won this game.’”
Stewart led MP in rushing with 90 yards on 13 carries while Harden added 41 rushing yards and a touchdown on 6 carries in just over a quarter of action. Harris and Hickman combined to complete 4 of 10 passes for 101 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Meanwhile, Miller led Morrow in rushing with 102 yards and two touchdowns on 8 carries, and two Mustangs’ passers combined to complete 16 of 25 passes for 173 yards.
Nelson said the Bulldogs were fortunate to escape yet another blown lead but was unable to pinpoint why MP has yielded double digit advantages in each of its first three games.
He said, “It can be a few different things. Like tonight, some of it was off of special teams. That’s kind of what got them back in the game. A big punt return they had, and then they had a long kickoff return. But I haven’t really looked at it like that (as a troubling pattern). It may be. Again, it’s getting this crew to understand that you’ve got to keep playing the whole time. You get up on somebody, and it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re good.’ But you’ve got to keep playing. That thing could have went the other way. If the dude doesn’t try to run it out of the end zone, we don’t get those two points on a block. If Rivera doesn’t hit a 51-yard field goal, we don’t get that. There aren’t many high school games where there’s a 50-yard field goal involved, but there was in this one, and we wound up winning by a point.”