The Mary Persons Bulldogs overcame rain and a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to outlast Howard 45-38 in a memorable shootout at the Ed DeFore Sports Complex in Macon on Thursday.
The victory sent the Bulldogs, 5-5 overall (3-2 in Region 2-AAAA), to the AAAA state playoffs for the ninth consecutive season, including eight straight under current head coach Brian Nelson. MP, the No. 3 seed from Region 2-AAAA, will travel to Eastside (Covington), 7-3 overall (6-1 in Region 4-AAAA), the No. 2 seed from Region 4-AAAA. MP has won at least one state playoff game in each of Nelson’s seven previous seasons.
Nelson said MP’s comeback win on Thursday ranks among the biggest wins of his eight-year head coaching career: “We’ve won some big games but in terms of everything that’s gone on this year, this is up there. I told them (MP players) after the game, ‘We’ve had some really good teams here, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been more proud of a team than this team tonight.’ Just a great job by everybody, coaches, players. I’m really happy.”
MP senior Rico Harden played perhaps the finest game of his two-year Dogs’ career, scoring a total of five touchdowns, three on the ground and two through the air. Harden led the Bulldogs in rushing with 66 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries and receiving with 132 yards and two scores on three receptions. He also returned a kickoff for 38 yards and returned an interception 65 yards.
Harden said Nelson challenged him to do a better job leading the team.
“My head coach talked to me before the game and told me he needed me to put the team on my back,” Harden said. “So that’s what I did. I went out there and put the team on my back. I had a few little minor injuries here and there, but I had to fight them off and come out with a W.”
Nelson said Harden’s performance was one of the greatest individual nights in MP’s storied history.
“That’s the best he’s played,” Nelson said of Harden. “He’s always got that capability. When he gets in that mindset, he’s unbelievable. He got in that mindset against Jackson and then he got there again tonight. Defense, interception, interception return, kickoff return, catch, run, he gets in this mode where he just goes and he wants the ball all the time.”
Needing a win to guarantee itself a playoff spot, the Bulldogs started off Thursday’s contest with a score before many fans even had time to sit down. MP’s Adrian Hughley returned the opening kickoff 60 yards down to the Howard 20-yard-line. Two plays later, MP quarterback Logan Hickman threw a short pass to Harden in the right flat. The senior running back did the rest, making a hard cut to elude one Huskies’ defender and then exploding through a hole for a 20-yard touchdown. Tripp Shipman’s extra point put MP in front 7-0 just 44 seconds into the game.
After a Huskies’ three-and-out, Hickman completed a 39-yard tunnel screen to Trippe Moore to move the Dogs to the Howard 10-yard-line. However, after Hickman failed to connect with Moore in the back right corner of the end zone on third down, MP was forced to try a field goal. Shipman, in just his second game as the starting kicker, nailed a 28-yard try with 7:04 left in the first period to put MP ahead 10-0. It was the eighth time in 10 contests in 2019 that the Bulldogs have taken a double-digit, first-half lead.
But MP’s advantage was short-lived on Thursday. After a failed MP onside kick attempt, Howard got the ball at the Dogs’ 49-yard-line. Three plays later, Howard quarterback Jaylon Clark rolled left and found tight end Win Davidson free behind MP’s secondary for a 45-yard touchdown with 5:44 left in the first quarter. Elizabeth Rodenroth’s extra point trimmed MP’s lead to three at 10-7.
MP’s offense then drove to Howard’s 30-yard-line, where the Bulldogs faced a 4th-and-2. Harden took a direct snap out of the wildcat formation, but was stopped one yard shy of the first down marker, giving Howard the ball back. The Huskies then ate up more than five minutes of clock, marching 71 yards on 11 plays, 10 on the ground. Running back Javarsia Meadows lined up in the slot before racing to take a draw from Clark and scampering four yards into the end zone for a Huskies’ touchdown. Rodenroth’s extra point with 9:47 left in the second quarter gave Howard its first lead at 14-10.
The teams traded three-and-outs, and MP once again got excellent field position at Howard’s 46-yard-line after a 12-yard Huskies’ punt. However, a holding penalty backed the Bulldogs up into their own territory, and MP punted for the second straight time. On Howard’s next play, Huskies’ star tailback Jeremiah Kelly took a draw to the left and darted through a hole, outrunning MP’s secondary for a 63-yard touchdown. Howard’s extra point try was thwarted by a bad snap, but the Huskies still took a 10-point edge, 20-10, with 4:29 left in the second period.
The teams again traded three-and-outs late in the first half, but another short Howard punt would give MP the ball at the Huskies’ 45-yard-line. On the first play of MP’s ensuing series, Hickman found Harden on a screen pass to the left that went for 41 yards to the Howard four-yard-line. On the next play, Harden ran up the middle for a four-yard score with 40 seconds left before halftime. Shipman’s extra point narrowed MP’s deficit to three at 20-17.
But Howard wasn’t content to run out the clock in the first half. The Huskies amassed 51 yards on two plays to move inside the MP red zone. However, two plays later, Clark made his first major miscue, throwing an interception to MP’s Hughley in the end zone, averting a field goal try and ending the half.
But Howard’s explosive offense picked up where it left off in the second half, scoring on its second play from scrimmage. In what looked like a reverse image of his first score, Kelly took a draw right, shot through a large hole and accelerated to daylight down the right sideline for a 67-yard touchdown. Rodenroth’s extra point put Howard back up by 10 at 27-17 just 46 seconds into the second half.
After each team punted, MP again got the ball across midfield (in a recurring theme) at Howard’s 45-yard-line. In what might have been the most important play of the game, Hickman threw deep into triple coverage, and his pass was intercepted by Howard’s Jaquan Jackson and returned nearly 70 yards down deep into MP territory. However, the turnover was negated by a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty on Howard, allowing the Bulldogs to keep possession. Four plays later, Harden ran up the middle, sidestepped two defenders and pulled away from a third tackler to score a 15-yard touchdown with 5:28 left in the third quarter. Shipman’s extra point trimmed MP’s deficit to 27-24 in a game the Bulldogs seemed poised to fall behind by three scores just moments earlier.
After an MP personal foul penalty, the Huskies finally got good field position at the Dogs’ 42-yard-line. Back-to-back long runs advanced Howard to MP’s eight-yard-line, but MP’s defense clamped down in the red zone, holding the Huskies to a 24-yard Rodenroth field goal to make it 30-24 Howard with 2:56 left in the third quarter.
MP’s offense then drove to Howard’s 30-yard-line, where the Bulldogs faced a 4th-and-8. Hickman appeared to convert the first down on another screen pass to Moore, which would have set up MP with 1st-and-goal at the Huskies’ two-yard-line, but it was negated by a holding penalty on the Bulldogs. With MP backed up five yards, Nelson elected to punt.
Perhaps putting MP’s leaky defense back on the field turned out to be the wrong call because three plays later, Howard’s Meadows ran a reverse toward the left sideline. He then cut back across the grain to his right, eluding MP defenders en route to a 74-yard touchdown with 10:12 left in the fourth quarter. Rodenroth’s extra point put Howard up 38-24, and MP suddenly needed two scores to force overtime as its playoff hopes grew ever fainter.
But it didn’t take long, 53 seconds to be exact, for the Bulldogs to trim their daunting 14-point deficit to just seven. On the second play of MP’s ensuing series, Hickman set up a perfect screen, waiting until Howard defenders had nearly circled him before finding Harden open on the left side near the MP sideline. Despite being slowed by cramps moments earlier, Harden turned on the afterburners and dashed 71 yards, finishing the long score by diving across the front left pylon for a touchdown. Shipman’s extra point cut Howard’s lead to seven at 38-31 with 9:19 left in the fourth quarter.
MP’s much-maligned defense then did much of the heavy lifting the rest of the way. On the third play of Howard’s next drive, Clark misfired on a deep ball and threw a pass directly into Harden’s hands near the left sideline. Harden then returned the pick 65 yards to the Howard five-yard-line, where a Huskies’ penalty enabled MP to set up just two yards from the end zone. On the next play, MP’s William Stewart rushed up the middle for a two-yard score, and Shipman’s extra point tied the contest at 38-all with 8:16 left in the game.
MP’s defense then forced a three-and-out, and MP got possession at its own 27-yard-line with just over seven minutes to play. The Bulldogs methodically ran 10 plays while eating up nearly five minutes of clock time before sending in Shipman for the go-ahead field goal. Despite a bounced snap, Shipman somehow nailed a 34-yard field goal just inside the right upright seemingly to put MP in front 41-38 with 2:12 left in the game. However, Howard was flagged for a personal foul penalty for roughing Shipman after the kick, and Nelson made a bold decision to take the go-ahead points off the scoreboard and accept the penalty for an automatic first down. Nelson’s move proved to be the right one as Harden scored his fifth touchdown of the game on the very next play. At Howard’s eight-yard-line, Harden took a direct snap and ran behind the left side of MP’s offensive line for an easy eight-yard score. Shipman’s extra point with 2:07 left in the game put MP ahead for good at 45-38.
Howard had one more chance to tie or win the game, but Clark misfired on back-to-back throws near midfield on third down and fourth down, respectively. The turnover on downs allowed MP to take over possession with 48 seconds left and kneel down for a dramatic comeback win. The unlikely victory set off a wild MP on-field celebration and later led to dancing in the Dogs’ locker room.
MP senior left tackle Nate Howard said of MP’s playoff appearance: “It’s great. I’ve put a lot into this program. So being able to put on that black and gold one more time and play another game means more to me than anything.”
The Bulldogs won despite being outgained in total yardage 436 to 342, including a 355 to 126 Huskies’ advantage on the ground. Kelly was the star of the night for Howard, rushing for 185 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries. Meadows was also a standout in the backfield, rushing for 121 yards and two scores on just six carries. Clark led the Huskies in passing with 81 yards on 4 of 13 completions, including a touchdown and two interceptions. The junior quarterback also rushed for 49 yards on 12 carries.
For MP, Stewart assisted Harden on the ground with 41 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Hickman passed for 216 yards on 9 of 14 completions with two touchdowns. Tight end Andre Jackson led the Dogs in receptions with four for 47 yards.
Nelson said MP had stopped playing hard late in games a few times this season, and he was pleased that his team left it all on the field against Howard.
“We had kind of done that previous times where we didn’t really fight til the end, but it’s a testament to the kids,” Nelson said. “They fought hard. And they’ve shown up every week. Everything hasn’t always gone our way this year. It’s been a tough go of things at times. And they’ve heard stuff, just like everybody else has heard stuff. But they showed up tonight, and they kept fighting. We’re down two scores basically. We give up a couple of long runs, but we kept fighting. Hopefully they learned that that’s what happens when you keep battling and fighting.”