holton bell

Mary Persons linebacker Holton Bell grabs a Peach County ballcarrier’s jersey in an effort to keep him out of the end zone. The Trojans rushed for 236 yards and four touchdowns in Peach County’s 44-13 win. (Photo/Will Davis) 

Mary Persons has a losing record heading into region play for the first time in head coach Brian Nelson’s eight-year tenure after an undermanned Bulldogs’ squad was walloped 44-13 at home by top-ranked Peach County on Friday.

Facing the powerhouse Trojans without starting quarterback Malikk Harris and top running back Rico Harden, the Bulldogs jumped out to an unexpected 10-0 lead. But Peach County outscored MP 44-3 the rest of the way en route to the second-most lopsided defeat at Dan Pitts Stadium since a 32-0 opening week loss to West Point in 1965. The only home defeat since then by a wider margin was a 49-0 loss to LaGrange in 2001.

The 31-point loss also matched the largest-ever margin of defeat under Nelson, equaling a 45-14 road playoff loss at Ridgeland in his first season at the helm in 2012.

The blowout loss dropped MP to 2-3 at the regular season’s halfway mark. Only three previous times since 1963 have the Bulldogs been below .500 at the season’s midpoint. On all three previous occasions, 1965, 2000 and 2006, the Bulldogs finished the year with a losing record of 4-6.

In a thorough domination, Peach County outgained MP 527 to 146 in total yardage, including a 236 to 60 advantage on the ground. Trojans’ senior quarterback Jaydon Gibson passed for 291 yards on 17 of 23 completions, including two touchdowns and an interception. Peach County’s other offensive star was running back Noah Whittington, who rushed for a game-high 112 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries while also leading the Trojans in receiving with 91 yards and another touchdown on four receptions.

Both teams traded three-and-outs on their opening possessions. After yet another MP three-and-out, it was Peach County’s offense that made the game’s first critical miscue. Gibson fumbled a shotgun snap, and MP defensive tackle Jalen Germany pounced on the loose ball at Peach County’s 28-yard-line. Two plays later, MP’s William Stewart, starting for the second straight week in Harden’s stead, found a gaping hole on the right side and took a counter 32 yards untouched for a touchdown. Julian Rivera’s extra point gave MP a quick 7-0 lead with 5:19 left in the first quarter over the heavily favored visitors.

Nelson then went into his bag of tricks and called for an onside kick, which Rivera performed expertly. The senior kicker dribbled the ball the necessary 10 yards and recovered his own kick to give MP possession at the 50. A costly personal foul facemask penalty on Peach County allowed the Bulldogs to get into field goal range at the Peach County 24-yard-line. Rivera, who missed a game-winning chip shot at Lovett, put the disappointment behind him and drilled a 42-yarder straight down the middle to put MP ahead 10-0 with 3:36 left in the first quarter.

But Peach County’s offense got on track in its third possession. Combining Gibson’s short passes with Whittington’s powerful inside runs, the Trojans marched down to the MP 17-yard-line in just five plays. On the sixth play of the drive, Whittington steamrolled into Stewart, manning free safety, for a nine-yard gain and appeared to injure the MP star’s shoulder, forcing him out of the game for good. On the very next play, Whittington ran behind the left side of the line and trucked another Bulldog, safety Trippe Moore, on the goal line for an eight-yard touchdown. Moore was also forced to sit out the remainder of the game with an apparent head injury, leaving the Bulldogs without a starting receiver and punter. Jonathan Lupian’s extra point with 1:28 left in the first quarter narrowed MP’s lead to three at 10-7 in a drive that would prove costly for the Bulldogs.

After MP’s backup punter Tripp Shipman could only muster an eight-yard kick thanks to a vicious Peach County rush, the Trojans started their next possession at MP’s 38-yard-line. Four plays later, Whittington got his second eight-yard touchdown run of the gain, this time injuring Stewart’s replacement, Adrian Hughley, on a collision at the goal line. Lupian’s extra point put Peach County on top 14-10 with 8:44 left in the second quarter, and the Trojans would only add to their lead from there.

After an MP three-and-out and another short punt, the Trojans again took possession in Bulldog territory at MP’s 37-yard-line. This time, it took four plays for Peach County to get into the end zone with Whittington once again capping the drive with a three-yard touchdown run off of a direct snap. Lupian’s point-after gave the Trojans a 21-10 lead with 5:22 left in the first half.

With MP struggling in the passing game, the Bulldogs tried a variation of the wishbone on their next series with running back Kelvin Harden taking direct snaps. But a delay-of-game flag would prove costly, and the Bulldogs would have to punt again. An 18-yard Gibson quarterback draw would move Peach County back into the red zone, but MP’s defense forced the Trojans to settle for a Lupian 29-yard field goal with 51 seconds left in the first half to put Peach County safely ahead 24-10 at halftime.

Peach County threatened to score again to open the third quarter, but MP senior cornerback Dennis Swain picked off a Gibson pass at the Dogs’ five-yard-line to prevent another score. After MP’s offense once again went three-and-out, the Trojans’ offense achieved its fastest scoring drive yet. On the second play of the ensuing series, Gibson connected with tight end Sergio Allen. The Clemson commit outran Dogs’ linebacker Andre Jackson in the left slot for a 63-yard touchdown. Johan Angeles’ extra point gave Peach County a 31-10 advantage with 7:40 left in the third quarter.

MP had its longest offensive play of the game on its next series when freshman quarterback Logan Hickman, starting for the first time in his career, connected on a deep bomb post pattern to Swain for a 45-yard gain. Although the Dogs’ drive would stall at the Trojans’ 20-yard-line, Rivera booted a 37-yard field goal to narrow the Dogs’ deficit to 18 at 31-13 with 2:55 left in the third quarter.

But Gibson wasn’t done with his heroics. On the fourth play of Peach County’s ensuing drive, the Trojans’ quarterback found Whittington on a comeback route. The senior running back did the rest, rumbling through a Dogs’ defender and accelerating into the open field for a 62-yard touchdown with 59 seconds to go in the third quarter. Angeles’ extra point put the Trojans ahead 38-13.

Peach County then milked the clock on its next series, chewing up 3:12 of game time on a seven-play, 72-yard drive. Freshman running back Chris McMillon capped the scoring with a 13-yard touchdown run with 6:24 left in the fourth quarter to put the Trojans ahead 44-13. Third-string kicker Hermes Rodriguez missed the extra point, and the Trojans settled for a 31-point final margin.

Although he played less than a quarter, Stewart led MP in rushing with 41 yards and a touchdown on eight carries while Hickman completed 5 of 10 passes for 86 yards to lead the Dogs’ passing attack.

Nelson said the Bulldogs couldn’t afford any more key injuries with Harris and Harden already sidelined, but Moore and Stewart joined their teammates on the bench early.

“We got banged up,” Nelson said. “That’s the last thing I wanted to happen is for us to get hurt. We don’t have enough depth when bodies start flying. Shoot, we played the second half with a freshman at corner.”

Nelson said his young squad hasn’t had to deal with the type of brutal physicality displayed on Friday by Peach County, especially Whittington.

“That kid, he ran the ball hard,” Nelson said. “He’s a good player, and they’ve got a bunch of good players. I thought for the most part our kids hung in there a bit. He made us pay at the end of a couple of runs, but those guys have got to learn. Some of those guys haven’t been hit like that in three years, or ever.”

The Bulldogs will have a week off before opening Region 2-AAAA play on Friday, Oct. 4 at Spalding. MP, which is pursuing a program record fifth consecutive region championship, is expected to have most, if not all, of its stars back in the lineup when it faces the Jaguars.

Despite the historic margin of defeat, a typically upbeat Nelson said he anticipates his team will be ready to defend its Region 2-AAAA title.

He said, “I think we’ve just got a good group. They’ve got good attitudes. We had good energy and excitement through warm-ups. You saw how we played early on at the beginning of the game. We gave ourselves a chance, and there was going to have to be a bunch of things go our way to work out tonight. But we jumped out 10-0. That’s probably more than a lot of people were expecting. Hopefully these guys aren’t banged up too bad, and then we’re going to get Rico and Malikk back. That part’s over. Those five games are over. These are the five games that matter now.”