By Bill Sorrell
The worst thing that could have happened to Haywood’s football team happened.
On the Tomcats’ first possession and 19 seconds into the game, Deyondrius Hines fumbled and Memphis University School linebacker Matthew Rhodes recovered, running 32 yards for a touchdown.
On Haywood’s second possession, quarterback Tillman McRae was intercepted by the Owls’ defensive back Dekari Scott at the Tomcat 17-yard line, returning to the 8. A 15-yard rushing loss on the next play and incomplete passes set up a 45-yard field goal by Trey Thomas. The Owls led 10-0 three minutes after their first touchdown.
The tone for the Owls’ start was set before kickoff. Coming into their homecoming game on Friday with three straight losses to powerhouses, the Owls had a pre-game talk.
“It was homecoming and we didn’t want to come out sloppy so we said ‘Come out swinging.’ That fumble recovery for a touchdown gave energy to the team the rest of the game,” said linebacker Buchanan Dunavant.
MUS Head Coach Bobby Alston added, “That was huge. We haven’t been getting off to great starts so that was a blessing.”
Snapping a three-game losing streak, MUS toppled Haywood County 33-14 in the first meeting between the schools since 1976 and took a 10-6 series lead.
Bobby Wade, MUS senior quarterback, called the victory “very important.”
“To be able to come out and play a great game is huge,” he said. “Getting momentum right off the bat is invaluable.”
McRae said, “MUS is a good team but that is by far the worst we’ve played.”
Haywood, which had been ranked No. 2 in the state Associated Press 4A poll, lost its second straight to a Division 2-AAA West Region team. Briarcrest stunned the Tomcats 43-42 on a two-point conversion two weeks before. The Tomcats are 4-2.
MUS, which lost to Seminole Ridge, Fla. 20-19 and Montgomery Bell Academy 28-21 in overtime before a 34-10 loss to South Panola, improved to 3-3 on the season.
“We would have been in trouble if we had lost again that is for sure,” said Alston.
Trouble is what Haywood Head Coach Steve Hookfin saw from the beginning.
“We start off our first offensive series and they scoop and score. We were a little punch drunk after that. It was hard to get our momentum back. They outplayed us in every facet of the game,” he said.
It was the first game where all three position groups did their job the majority of plays, according to Dunavant.
“We came together. The D-line got penetration. Some guys got double-teamed which opened up holes for our linebackers and secondary to get in coverage. It was an all- around good game,” he said. “I think we set the bar for the rest of the season.”
It was a turnaround for the Owls.
“The most positive thing I take away from it, we had a three-game losing streak coming in and finally get a good win against a quality team,” said Maurice Hampton, the Owls’ wide receiver/defensive back, who caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Wade for a 33-7 lead.
Leading 10-0, Thomas kicked a 27-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter. However the Tomcats were penalized for roughing the kicker and gave MUS a first down on the Haywood 5-yard line. With the three points off the board and after a one-yard loss, Wade ran six yards for a touchdown. Thomas made it 17-0.
Field position was key to the Owls’ victory. Sophomore punter Ben Skahan averaged 41.7 yards on seven punts and pinned the Tomcats inside their own 2-yard line twice and also at the 11 and 12-yard lines.
With 4:04 left in the second quarter, Skahan’s 39-yard punt put the Tomcats on their 2-yard line. McRae was sacked in the end zone for a safety by Joe Carter, giving the Owls a 26-7 lead.
“Again hats off to them for having a good kicker and doing good things and us not doing the things we had to win a ball game against a quality opponent,” said Hookfin.
Said Alston, “Our punter did a great job pinning them back, Trey Thomas made all his kicks tonight. That was huge. It was a total team effort.”
Thomas kicked four PATs plus his field goal.
Said Hampton, “We won special teams especially with Ben’s good punts.”
“The game was won by our defense. This team has been scoring about 35 or 40 points a game. They really have a good offense and good players,” said Alston, noting Haywood running back Decourtney Reed and McRae. “The defense did a good job of not letting the quarterback run the ball. We didn’t totally shut down No. 31 (Reed).”
A 63-yard TD run by Reed, his 12th touchdown of the season, gave the Tomcats their first touchdown with 6:46 left in the second quarter.
“I made a cut back off the lineman and saw open grass and turned on the jets,” said Reed, a junior.
Reed gained 159 yards on 12 carries, a 13.2-yard per carry average. McRae completed 8 of 20 passes for 62 yards. Brent Moore, who scored a fourth quarter touchdown on his only reception, led Tomcat receivers with 19 yards. Haywood had 242 yards total offense.
“Reed is a good ball player. He does good things for us. We can’t show our whole hand in a non-district game,” said Hookfin.
The Tomcats and Owls played eight straight seasons from 1969-76. MUS joined the Big Ten Conference, that included Haywood, in 1970.
Coaching at Jackson Liberty before Haywood, Hookfin had scheduled MUS.
“Coach Alston and I had a good relationship when I was at Liberty. They have got a world of talent, great kicking game, some of the better players in the state of Tennessee,” said Hookfin, citing Hampton.
MUS had 149 yards total offense with 95 net rushing yards. The rushing total was 142 yards but there were losses of 47 yards. Wade completed 13 of 21 passes for 54 yards. Daniel Shumate caught five passes for 23 yards while Thomas Hayden caught two for 16 and Hampton six for 15 yards.
The Owls’ senior running back Tide Faleye rushed for 116 yards on eight carries for a 14.5 yards- per- carry average and scored a 32-yard touchdown in the second quarter that gave MUS a 24-0 lead. Faleye was injured in the second quarter and did not return.
“I thought he got us off to a good start and got us some rhythm. We were doing a good job blocking. He was doing a good job reading his blocks and I hate that he got hurt,” said Alston. “Bobby got hurt (in the second quarter but played until the fourth). We were kind of like a lame horse trying to get some plays run and the clock moving.”
Wade said, “I was concerned about running the ball because they are pretty big and strong inside the box and they typically load up the box.”
Wade praised the Owls’ defense for coming up with a turnover (Scott’s first quarter interception) on Haywood’s second offensive possession.
“That was the turning point,” he noted.
Alston called Rhodes and Buchanan “the heart and soul” of the team.
“Maurice did a great job and made a great play on the deep ball. Our best player is Maurice Hampton on both sides of the ball,” said Alston.
Hampton, a centerfielder on the Owls’ baseball team, has committed to play baseball at LSU.
“Bobby is doing a nice job at quarterback,” he said. “T.J. (Faleye) at running back. Stephen Christenbury has been our best all around offensive lineman so far. We are missing Dorian Hopkins (shoulder injury). He is one of four best linebackers. He was Mr. Football (2016 Division 2 AA Lineman Mr. Football). Matthew Rhodes and Buchanan Dunavant are good linebackers. Joe Carter is a good defensive lineman. Maurice plays corner. He is very good.”
Dunavant led MUS tacklers with 9. Rhodes had 6.5, Carter 5.5, Sean Fitzhenry 4.5 Top Haywood tacklers were Tristan Taylor with 6.5, Detravious Blake 5, Derrion Bell 4, Jerwin Young 4.
Haywood receivers Taylor Shields had three catches for 17 yards, Hines for 17 yards, Xavier Walker one for 10. Hines averaged 39.2 yards on four punts.
Wade’s determined touchdown run came with 11:02 left in the second quarter. Faleye’s touchdown run came with 7:43 left in the second.
Walker’s return to the Haywood 29-yard line and Reed’s 8-yard run to the 37 preceded Reed’s touchdown with 6:40 left in the second. The Tomcats trailed 24-7. Haywood had gotten to the MUS 9-yard line moments before halftime after Reed had a 30-yard run that took the Cats to the MUS 19. Reed had rushed for 118 yards by halftime, Faleye 116 yards.
Dunavant’s interception of a McRae pass and his 8-yard return put the Owls on the Tomcat 13-yard line with 2:01 left in the third quarter. A first down run by Jonathan Whitehead got to the 2-yard line. The Owls lost three yards before Wade hit Hampton with the touchdown pass with 11:56 left in the game,
Moore added six more points for Haywood with his 19-yard touchdown reception, capping a 6-play, 60-yard drive with 8:38 left. Joseph Sanchez kicked his second extra point.
“I was very proud of our defense and the way we responded,” said Hookfin of his 4-man front that will go 5-man front and occasionally a zone-in man coverage.
“The offense gave them nine points. We take those back and we do some things, it’s a different ball game,” Hookfin added. “This is on me. This is all part of growing. I give hats off to the whole defense, our backs and secondary really played well. The offense didn’t do the things we needed to do as far as sustaining drives and getting our defense off the field.
The Tomcats host Ripley in a region game this Friday while MUS travels to St. Benedict.
Reed said, “We can’t hang our heads. This helps prepare us for the playoffs and the state championship.”
McRae, who runs Haywood’s multiple offense and missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, said, “We wanted to win no doubt. Playing tough teams helps us a lot come district games. We’ll bounce back.”
Last year, the ball bounced MUS’ way said Alston.
“We won some close games (10-1),” he recalled. “This year we have lost a couple of tight ones that we could have won. We didn’t make the play that we needed to make.”
Said Hampton, “Our record has no definition of the season. Three-loss teams have won the state championship and I feel like this group is one of the best groups I have played with so we should be good going forward.”