William Stewart

William Stewart

The Mary Persons Bulldogs’ hopes for a record fifth straight region title appear faint as MP heads to Perry to face the surging Panthers on Friday night.

After getting pounded 52-7 at home by first-place West Laurens on Friday, the Bulldogs no longer have their fate in their own hands. MP will need to win its final two regular season games while the Raiders lose their final two regular season contests in order for MP to capture another championship.

For the Bulldogs to have any chance, they will need to get back on the winning track immediately, and that means beating a Perry squad that will enter Friday’s showdown at Herb St. John Stadium on a three-game winning streak.

After losing three of five non-region games, the Panthers have bounced back in region play, winning their first three region contests. After a tight 22-15 road win over Upson-Lee on Oct. 4, the Panthers have dominated their last two opponents, winning 40-14 at Howard on Oct. 18 and 38-0 over Spalding at home last Friday. According to the Houston Home-Journal, the Panthers took a 21-0 halftime lead over the Jaguars en route to a dominating defensive shutout that included seven sacks.

Following a promising 2018 season, Perry, led by third-year head coach Kevin Smith, opened the 2019 campaign in disappointing fashion with a 34-3 home loss to rival Houston County, a AAAAAA squad. The Panthers then rebounded to beat AA Northeast 36-20 at home. Perry then fell 33-13 at AAA Westside (Macon) before regrouping with a 45-20 home win over AAA Monroe (Albany). The Panthers then lost to another Houston County rival, AAAAAA Veterans, 13-3 on the road in their final non-region matchup.

Perry, which features a spread attack, is led offensively by junior quarterback Lane Rucker, who has passed for 1,025 yards on 60 percent completions with eight TD passes and five interceptions. As a sophomore in 2018, Rucker eclipsed the 3,000-yard mark through the air while throwing 20 TDs and being intercepted 17 times. But Rucker’s attempts are down in 2019 as the Panthers have turned more to their ground game, led by junior running back Makeil Kendrick, who has rushed for a team-high 773 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 6.8 yards per carry. Rucker’s top receiving target is sophomore Daequan Wright, who has caught a team-high 23 passes for 295 yards and two scores.

On defense, Perry features a trio of standouts. Senior safety Tyren Mobley leads the Panthers in tackles with 72 and interceptions with three. Meanwhile, senior defensive end C.J. Demicco is second on the squad in tackles with 68 but first in solo tackles with 45, tackles-for-a-loss with 15 and sacks with 7. Another big-play star is speedy linebacker Ja’maian Stokes, who has 67 tackles, including 13 tackles-for-a-loss. The Panthers also have a solid special teams unit with sophomore kicker William McCranie, who has made five of six field goals and all 15 extra point tries, and punter Rucker, who averages 33.4 yards-per-punt on 28 attempts.

The Bulldogs have won 27 of 35 all-time meetings against the Panthers, including eight straight dating back to a 44-38 triple-overtime classic in Perry in 2011 in which MP overcame a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit. In the 2018 meeting in Forsyth, MP endured cold, damp conditions while polishing off a dominating 40-3 Homecoming win. MP quarterback J.T. Hartage threw for 182 yards and three touchdowns while tailback Quen Wilson, who ran for a 70-yard touchdown on the Bulldogs’ first play from scrimmage, rushed for a game-high 169 yards. The 2018 game might be best remembered for being a chippy contest in which there were several near-melees that caused a combined 21 penalty flags to be thrown.

In MP’s last trip to Herb St. John Stadium in 2017, the Bulldogs arrived just minutes before kickoff due to traffic but still managed to pile up 416 total yards and 47 points in the first half alone en route to a 47-21 pounding of the Panthers. Wilson ran for a game-high 144 yards and three touchdowns while Hartage threw for 182 yards and another score. Perry has installed field turf since MP’s last visit.

Best known for its successful basketball program, Perry has never been a football power, advancing beyond the second round of the state playoffs just twice in its 66-year football history. The Panthers are also still awaiting their first 10-win season, having won nine games on three occasions. However, the Panthers have put just as many players in the NFL as MP with four, including current Los Angeles Chargers Pro Bowl cornerback Casey Hayward.

Meanwhile, the 2019 Bulldogs continue to struggle mightily on defense, having yielded the most points-per-game (31.2) in modern program history. In just eight games, the Bulldogs’ defense has already allowed the second-most total points of any MP squad in history with 250. The winless 1961 squad currently holds the record for most points allowed in a single season with 253, a dubious mark the 2019 team will match with a Perry field goal.

However, MP’s offense was just as poor as the Dogs’ defense against West Laurens. The Bulldogs failed to score an offensive point with MP’s lone touchdown coming on an interception returned for a touchdown by senior cornerback Rico Harden.