Mary Persons senior receiver Trippe Moore caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Logan Hickman in the back right corner of the end zone over Eastside defensive back Jeffery Haynes. Moore’s catch gave MP a 28-21 road win and advanced the Bulldogs to the second round of the AAAA state playoffs. MP will next host Madison County at Dan Pitts Stadium at 7:30 p.m. on Friday. (Photo/Russ Campbell)

The Mary Persons Bulldogs pulled off their second dramatic comeback in a row, this one more stunning than the last, to upset Eastside (Covington) on the road in the first round of the AAAA state playoffs.

Trailing by one, MP recovered an onside kick with just over two minutes to play. MP freshman quarterback Logan Hickman then connected with receiver Trippe Moore on a fade to the back right corner of the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left to give the Bulldogs a remarkable 28-21 comeback win.

The Bulldogs, who needed a 21-point fourth quarter in a 45-38 win at Howard on Nov. 7 just to make the playoffs, also got an unexpected surprise when No. 4 seed Madison County stunned top-seeded Ridgeland on the road. Madison County’s win enables MP to host a home playoff game in the second round against the Red Raiders at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.

With the victory over Eastside, MP reached the second round of the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season, including eight straight under Brian Nelson. The Bulldogs also reached the six-win mark for the 54th time in the past 57 seasons and guaranteed MP of finishing at .500 or better for the 54th time in the past 57 years.

Nelson said MP achieved its most notable win to date in 2019 because his players stuck together despite trailing for much of the game.

He said, “We’ve been talking to them (MP players) the last couple of weeks. It hasn’t been the easiest thing for us this year. ‘Just stay together. Stay with each other.’ Since that West Laurens game when we kind of gave in a little bit. The Perry game we fought, it just didn’t go our way. And of course Howard we had to have a comeback and tonight we did too. I hate that it’s happening so late, but I’m glad that it’s happening. Better late than never. They’re kind of starting to build a little bit. What that means, I don’t know. You’ve got to play every week. So we’ll see what happens.”

In the Dogs’ first road playoff game in the opening round in eight years, it was Eastside who struck the first blow. After the teams traded three-and-outs, MP’s Rico Harden fumbled a punt return, and the Eagles took over at MP’s 34-yard-line. On the next play, Eastside quarterback Noah Cook dropped a bomb to top receiver Jeffery Haynes, who beat Harden to the post in the middle of the end zone. Haynes leapt over two MP defensive backs, including Harden, for a 37-yard score less than two minutes into the game. Ezra King’s extra point made it 7-0 with 10:06 left in the first quarter.

On MP’s next drive, the Bulldogs got their initial first down on a 21-yard screen pass from Hickman to Harden, but a third-down sack by Eastside’s Christian Benson forced an MP punt. Eastside then went three-and-out for a second time, but King’s 54-yard punt pinned MP deep at its eight-yard-line.

On the third play of MP’s ensuing possession, Hickman connected with Andre Jackson on a short pass in the right flat. Jackson did the rest, darting down the right sideline for a 44-yard gain past midfield. Nine plays later, Harden capped a 12-play, 92-yard drive that spanned 5:55 with a one-yard touchdown run on a direct shotgun snap. Tripp Shipman’s extra point tied the game at 7-7 with 11:13 left in the second quarter.

In three plays, Eastside’s offense moved the ball to MP’s 32-yard-line, but the Dogs’ defense forced its lone turnover of the game on the next play when MP’s senior linebacker Jackson stripped the ball loose from Eagles’ running back Kenai Grier and recovered the fumble himself. Although MP would again go three-and-out, Moore flipped the field with a 51-yard punt.

But in a battle of strong-legged punters, Eastside’s King wore the crown. After Eastside could only muster a single first down, the senior’s leg launched another rocket, this time a 51-yarder, to pin MP at its own two-yard-line.

However, backed up in a tough spot, MP picked a good time to mount its longest touchdown drive of the season. Harden picked up 11 yards on third down to move the sticks. Three plays later, he recorded another first down with a nine-yard run on third down. With the ball out near midfield later in the drive, Hickman threw perhaps his sweetest pass of the year, hooking up with Moore down the right sideline for a 36-yard gain. On the next play, MP dialed up a reverse and wide receiver Adrian Hughley took a handoff headed right for a 13-yard touchdown with 37 seconds left in the second quarter to cap an 11-play, 98-yard scoring drive that lasted 5:59. Shipman’s extra point gave MP a 14-7 halftime lead.

MP more than doubled Eastside in yardage in the first half, outgaining the Eagles 205 to 92, including a whopping 67 to 12 advantage on the ground.

But Eastside would get the ball to start the second half, and Eagles’ head coach Troy Hoff turned to running back Sincere Johnson, who didn’t get a single carry in the first half, to ignite the Eagles’ struggling offense. Starting in good field position at MP’s 49-yard-line, Eastside marched 49 yards in seven plays, including four Johnson runs to tie the game. Johnson capped the drive with a four-yard TD run out of the Wildcat formation, and King’s extra point knotted the contest at 14-14 with 9:38 left in the third quarter.

The teams traded three-and-outs again before MP got its initial first down of the second half on its second possession. The drive stalled when Moore dropped a third down pass, but the senior quickly redeemed himself with a 47-yard punt to pin Eastside at its own 13-yard-line.

However, just as MP had done in the first half, the Eagles’ offense conquered its adverse starting field position. On the sixth play of the drive, Cook beat Hughley over the top, hooking up with Haynes down the left sideline for a 43-yard gain. Two plays later, MP busted coverage, and Cook found a wide open Johnson in the back right corner of the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown. King’s extra point put the Eagles back on top 21-14 with 21 seconds left in the third quarter.

Both teams again traded three-and-outs before MP began to mount its latest, greatest comeback. Starting at its own six-yard-line after a 52-yard King punt, Hickman rapidly flipped the field back, connecting with Harden on a 69-yard screen pass down the left sideline. Three plays later, in a precursor of things to come, Hickman threw a jump ball in the back right corner of the end zone for Moore, but the pass was broken up by Haynes, setting up 4th-and-6 at the Eagles’ 21-yard-line. Hickman then made his lone major miscue of the game, dropping the center snap. By the time he recovered, he was forced to heave a pass in Hughley’s direction, which the junior receiver wisely batted to the ground to keep from getting intercepted.

But MP’s defense, which has so often let the Dogs’ down late in games in 2019, rose to the occasion and forced its second straight three-and-out, enabling MP to get the ball at its own 36-yard-line with 6:33 to play.

MP turned to its bread-and-butter, its physical ground attack, and began pounding the rock behind the left side of the offensive line, anchored by senior Nate Howard. Six straight runs totaled 54 yards, advancing MP to the Eagles’ 10-yard-line. As Harden tried to keep the drive going, he fumbled near the goal line, but Howard alertly fell on the loose ball for a first down at the one-yard-line to keep MP’s scoring hopes alive. Harden then took another Hickman handoff and tried to dive across the end zone, but he was blasted short of the line, injuring the Dogs’ top player momentarily. With Harden out for a play, backup running back William Stewart ran untouched for a one-yard score with 2:14 left in the fourth quarter. But with MP just an extra point away from tying the game again, Shipman’s low extra point kick was blocked, and Eastside maintained a 21-20 lead.

Despite having three timeouts, Nelson rolled the dice and allowed Moore to try an onside kick. The gamble paid off handsomely for MP as Thomas Warren recovered the loose ball amidst a crowd of stunned Eagles.

Nelson said of the onside kick: “We practice it with Trippe, but the thing was I thought they were going to have their hands team so we were going to try to bloop it over their heads. They came out with their regular people, so all I did was yell out there to Trippe to onside it and he did it. I don’t know how we got it.”

With MP starting at the Eagles’ 42-yard-line, Moore baited Haynes into a 15-yard pass interference penalty to begin the drive. Three plays later, Harden ran for six yards on 3rd-and-4 to advance to the 15-yard line. After Harden fumbled a Hickman handoff for a two-yard-loss, MP offensive coordinator Jason Morrow turned back to the passing game with time dwindling on the clock. With MP at Eastside’s 17-yard-line, Hickman lofted a perfect fade toward the back right pylon. Moore, at least four inches taller than his nemesis Haynes, got a step on the Eagles’ star and got in position to leap for the pass. Moore, who had been unable to come down with a handful of similar catches in the game, outjumped Haynes this time and secured the reception for a 17-yard score with 35 seconds to play.

Nelson credited offensive coordinator Jason Morrow with deciding to go for broke and throw into the end zone even though the Dogs were creeping into field goal range.

Nelson said, “Jason looked at me and said, ‘Can we take a shot to Trippe here?’ And I said, ‘Do it.’ And it ended up working out. He made a big catch. Trippe Moore is a heckuva kid. He’s been a good kid for our program. And he made a heckuva play when he needed to. That’s a senior stepping up in the biggest moment.”

Moore said he was getting frustrated that the Eagles’ defensive backs weren’t being flagged for pass interference, and he said he knew he wasn’t going to get a bailout call at the end of the game.

“That last play, I tried to fight for the ball because I knew they weren’t going to call it (penalty),” Moore said. “It was just a 50/50 ball, and I just went up and luckily got it.”

MP then lined up for a two-point try and despite a 10-yard holding penalty, elected to go for two again. This time, Harden took a pitch and threw his first pass of the night, dropping a dime over the head of the Eagles’ drawn-in linebackers to a wide open Jackson to put MP in front by seven, 28-21.

Eastside got the ball at its own 36-yard-line with 29 seconds left. With MP playing soft coverage, Cook connected on an 11-yard completion to Haynes followed two plays later by a 29-yard hookup to Dayton Green to advance to MP’s 24-yard-line with five seconds left. With Cook looking to throw the ball into the end zone, MP’s defensive line got pressure on the QB, forcing him to check it down to Grier on an underneath route. Just as he had done earlier in the season in a one-point win over Morrow, it was Jackson who secured the final tackle, stopping Grier in his tracks along the left sideline at the 14-yard-line to preserve the 28-21 win.

For the game, the Bulldogs outgained the Eagles in total yards, 387 to 269, including a 155 to 60 edge on the ground. Harden led MP with 107 rushing yards and a score on 24 carries while Stewart added 26 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. Eastside’s leading ground gainer was Grier, who had 35 yards on seven totes. Both quarterbacks performed ably with Hickman completing 14 of 25 passes for 232 yards and the game-winning TD. Meanwhile, Cook, in his final high school game, completed 12 of 27 passes for 209 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Harden was MP’s top receiver with 91 yards on three receptions while Moore added 65 yards and a touchdown on three receptions. Haynes was Cook’s top target with five catches for 118 yards and a touchdown.

Moore said MP entered the playoffs wanting to wipe the slate clean on its disappointing 5-5 regular season.

“I just feel like what happened up to this point doesn’t define us,” Moore said. “This game defines us. And we’ve got more games to play. We get to play at home in the Pitt next week. And we’re just ready to play. That’s the kind of thing that our season is defined on, not all the other negative things. Tonight is what you play for. It doesn’t matter what happens in the regular season.”

Meanwhile, Nelson said a mostly frustrating campaign suddenly turned enjoyable in an instant.

“This is fun tonight,” Nelson said. “And really just because these kids have been through a lot. Things haven’t gone their way. We’ve lost some close ones and some other things. But I’m just real proud of them and happy that they can taste this. They were super excited in the locker room. And now we’ve got to get back to work on Sunday and try to win another one.”