By Bill Sorrell
Photo by Dana Goode
This one counted.
Before Houston’s football schedule got altered because of the coronavirus pandemic the Mustangs were planning to play Briarcrest, along with Christian Brothers, in scrimmages. That changed. They became regular season opponents.
“Now we scheduled them and we are going to keep score,” said Houston Head Coach James Thomas after the Mustangs lost to the Saints 35-27 on Thursday at Houston, a week after Houston opened its season with a 24-14 loss to Christian Brothers.
Averaging 15.9 yards per throw, Briarcrest senior quarterback Michael Dallas completed 15 of 22 passes for 238 yards and four touchdowns.
“Michael Dallas just makes plays,” said Briarcrest Head Coach Brian Stewart. “He is everything you want in a dual-threat quarterback.”
Thomas compared Dallas to an NFL quarterback.
“When you have a kid like Michael Dallas making plays, he looked like (Kansas City quarterback) Patrick Mahomes out there throwing it across his body to people moving in the other direction, especially in this wind that was tough. He is a phenomenal quarterback, one of the best I have seen play on this field in awhile,” said Thomas.
Dallas (6-1, 185) sparked the Saints and their spread offense to 408 yards total offense (238 passing, 170 rushing). Jerrod Gentry, a senior wide receiver, had 122 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Sophomore wide receiver Max Carroll caught two touchdown passes from Dallas among his 68 yards. Senior running back Will Pritchard rushed for a team-high 86 yards on 15 carries with Dallas gaining 65 on 17 carries. Sophomore running back Ahmad Miller rushed for 13 yards.
Houston senior quarterback Gray Nischwitz paced Houston hitting 12 of 22 passes for 142 yards, three touchdowns and a two-point conversion. Senior wide receiver Carson Goold caught 5 passes for 84 yards including two touchdowns. Houston senior running back Josh Mathis had a game-high 97 yards rushing on 20 carries with junior Ben Stegall rushing for 52 yards on 14 carries.
It was the second week the Saints (2-0) had knocked off a 6-A team. They defeated Collierville 21-7 in the season opener.
“It was a great game. I give all the credit to my O line. They did an absolute amazing job. We worked so hard this week to prepare for this game. We came in thinking we were going to win and we did,” said Dallas.
“We really get after it in practice during the week, on weekends.
Photo by Dana Goode
We always put in the extra mile and for us to win this game means a lot, especially a kind of rivalry right down the road.“
Houston wide receiver senior Darby Smith called Dallas “a heck of a player.”
“He made a ton of big plays,” Smith said. “He is tough to match up on defense because you have no idea where he is throwing the ball. One second you think he is running it. Then he will step up and throw it.”
With hopes of playing college football, Dallas, a short stop on Briarcrest’s baseball team, has committed to play baseball at the University of Kentucky. He will follow in a line of other successful Memphis high school quarterbacks who have chosen baseball in college including Arlington’s Tate Kolwyck (Vanderbilt) and Collierville’s Mitch Austin (Southwest). Trenton Peabody quarterback Cooper Baugus, who was Mr. Football in 2A after leading the Golden Tide to a state championship, will play baseball at Southwest.
“Athletes play quarterback and athletes play baseball. That arm action for both helps. They complement each other. It’s good to play both in high school for sure,” said Dallas.
Nischwitz said of Dallas, “I had tremendous respect for his game all night. He was a menace to our defense.”
Another menace to Houston (0-2) was fumbling on the Briarcrest 5-yard line with 8:23 left in the game while trying to overcome a 35-21 deficit.
“You can’t make those mistakes and beat a good football team like Briarcrest,” said Thomas.
Stewart said, “Here’s the thing. You bend but don’t break. You always say that about your defense. You find a way to make a play. Any time you are snapping the football there is a chance for it to go on the ground. You have got to be ready when your opportunity comes to get one.”
After senior linebacker Zach Laessig recovered the Houston fumble, a tackle of Dallas by the Mustangs’ Jaylin Lee forced the Saints to punt. Sophomore punter Cooper Allen kicked an incredible punt, a career-high 83 yards that went from 5 yards deep in his end zone to the Houston 12.
“An absolutely great punt by Cooper Allen. I told him that was a big play to switch fields like that and was very proud of him,” said Dallas.
The flipped field for position helped out the defense, said Stewart.
Later in the fourth quarter Houston recovered a Briarcrest fumble that set up the Mustangs final score, a 26-yard touchdown pass from Nischwitz to Goold with 1:10 left. The two-point conversion attempt failed.
“You can’t do that type of stuff,” said Stewart of the Saints’ fumble.
Two third quarter touchdowns provided the momentum the Saints needed for the win. Breaking a 21-21 halftime tie, Dallas ran 16 yards with 7:33 and 27-21 lead. Senior Caden Hughes kicked it to 28-21.
Pritchard had gotten a first down at the Briarcrest 45 and another at the Houston 20. The drive went 67 yards.
With 49 seconds left in the third Dallas hit Carroll for 24 yards for a 34-21 lead which Hughes made 35-21.
Dallas’ 12-yard pass to Carroll got a first down at the Saints’ 42. Pritchard ran two straight plays for successive first downs which put the Saints on the Houston 24. From there Dallas passed to Carroll for the touchdown.
Nischwitz said the third quarter was a turning point. “We were just flat and Michael Dallas took advantage.”
Not wanting a repeat of the second half of the Collierville game, Stewart said, “You always tell your kids it’s 0-0 at halftime. You’ve got to come out and make a stop and then you have got to do it again. We were able to do that and get up two scores. They (Mustangs) kept fighting back and fighting back.”
Dallas said, “When we won 21-7 (over Collierville) we felt like it should have been a lot more. The game got close in the second half because we didn’t keep it going so we really got after them (Mustangs) at the start of the second half to make sure that didn’t happen.”
The Saints proved they can play a four-quarter game no matter the conditions or the opponent said Gentry.
“We kept our foot on the gas. We came out strong that second half and that pushed us at the end of the game.”
In the first quarter the Saints took a 7-0 lead when Dallas threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Carroll with 6:41 left. Hughes kicked the PAT.
Pritchard, who averaged 5.7 yards per carry, had gotten the Saints a first down at the Houston 27 on a 12-yard run.
Houston scored its first touchdown of its second game on a 65-yard drive capped by Nischwitz’s 15-yard offense slant touchdown pass to senior Smith with 2:18 left in the first. Sophomore Freddy Dean kicked Houston’s extra point tying the game at 7 with 2:18 left.
Mathis ran for a first down at the Houston 49 before Stegall ran 14 yards for a first down a the Saints 37. Carries by Mathis and Stegall put the Mustangs on the Saints 15.
The Saints got their second score after a pass by Dallas to Gentry and Dallas’ first down run to the Houston 32. Dallas’ 32-yard touchdown pass and Hughes’ extra point put Briarcrest ahead 14-7.
The Saints took a 21-7 lead on a 41-yard pass from Dallas to Gentry that went to the Houston 1. Dallas hit Gentry again, this time for a 1-yard touchdown. Hughes’ third PAT increased the lead by 14.
“My thoughts going into the 21-7 deficit were we are going to have to punch them back the very next possession to get momentum and that’s exactly what we did. I had not doubts about getting back into it to make it a ball game,” said Nischwitz.
Thomas challenged his team when trailing by two touchdowns in the second quarter.
“We are not this team. You have got to get tough. Then you have got to start making plays. We made plays and came back and tied it up at halftime,” he said.
Houston scored on a 70-yard drive. Stegall got a first down run at the Briarcrest 49 and Mathis ran to the 41. Nischwitz threw a 20-yard pass to Smith at the 21. Mathis made two runs to the 15 before Nischwitz found Brock Vice, a 6-10, 205-pound tight end, alone in the end zone. The PAT was missed. The Mustangs trailed 21-13 with 3:54 left in the second quarter.
Houston tied the game when the Saints fumbled on their 21 and Vice, who is also a defensive lineman, recovered. A Mustangs penalty put them on the 33 and from there Stegall fired a touchdown pass to Goold. Nischwitz’s 2-point conversion pass to Vice tied the game with 3:17 left in the first half.
In the third quarter Houston sophomore Will Grant returned the kickoff to the Houston 41 and after a punt by Goold, Grant tackled the returner on the Saints 23.
Before the Houston fumble in the fourth quarter, Nischwitz threw a first down pass to Pierre Seals at the Briarcrest 41. Following a Nischwitz first down at the 31, Stegall ran to the Briarcrest 9.
The Mustangs had gotten the ball in good field position in the second half but “you can’t go three and out and give them the ball right back. Then they get all the momentum and go downfield and score,” said Thomas.
Smith, who also plays lacrosse, said the Mustangs had big plays, “some trickery but we couldn’t piece together on defense and make big plays. We couldn’t execute the plays. Going into the second half I thought we were going to win but we had that quick three and out and they drove it down and scored. They did their assignments better.”
Goold said, “We definitely lost a couple of key players. Juniors and seniors are going to have to step up. It comes down to us filling our roles and making the right calls and making our assignments on defense and offense.”
Said Nischwitz, “I learned our team is still young with not much experience just yet with varsity. Not having any live scrimmages due to corona didn’t give us the chance to get our kinks out. The rocky start won’t be in vain. I know the talent on our team.”
Mathis has been waiting for his chance to play offense. He has played defense and is listed on the roster as a linebacker along with a running back.
On Thursday, he said was trying to do his best for his team.
“It has always been my dream to run the ball. I have always been on defense. I wanted somebody to give me a chance. I want to prove that I can lead a team and hopefully (we can) be better than we were last year,” said Mathis. “Since I was a little kid, my dad (Steve Mathis) would always tell me, ‘Aim to run through the guy, not to him.’”
He leads the team with 600-pound squats he said.
“I work on staying low, work on leg muscles. It makes it easier for kids to bounce off my legs. I have had no loss in speed. It has made me faster working and running.” His goal is to work “hard enough” to get scholarship offers from NCAA Division 1 or 2 schools where he will major in mechanical engineering.
The Mustangs had standouts against Briarcrest in Vice, Seals, Barrett Glass, Goold said Nischwitz.
“There is no question that Brock Vice will be a tremendous asset to our team offensively and defensively. I also saw glimpses of great things from both Pierre Seals (a senior wide receiver) and Barrett Glass (sophomore wide receiver) who both had their first real minutes. I’d keep an eye out for them along with Carson Goold,” he said.
Thomas said his running backs, Stegall and Mathis ran hard.
“We got a big boost from Brock Vice who just became eligible this week,” he said. “When you have a 6-10 tight end it’s pretty hard to manage. He can out-jump anybody. He makes plays for us. He caught a touchdown on a little pop pass and a two-point conversion. Carson Goold caught a big ball late that gave us a chance.”
Gentry and Carroll “really got after it” for the Saints said Dallas.
Briarcrest senior defensive end and tight end Jay Austin, who is 6-5, 210, played well for the Saints said Stewart.
“I thought Pritchard had a great night running the ball. Jerrod Gentry made some big plays on a solid screen in the end zone. I know how fast our defense is. I know how great they get after it. I think our offensive line is continuing to grow. We have depth (on defense).”
After a 9-2 season in 2019, the Saints are having to replace players who are now in Division 1, including Omari Thomas and Jabari Small (both at Tennessee), Reggie Neely (Tulane), Rodney Newsom (preferred walk-on at Memphis), A.J, Pittman (Arkansas State), Marlon Hampton (Austin Peay). Christian Thomas is playing at Lyon College. They also lost standout Christian Green who was planning to play at Memphis but has decided to become a pilot.
“We lost a lot of guys,” said Stewart, in his seventh year at Briarcrest.
Gentry said, “We had one of the best classes last year to ever come out of Briarcrest. We have a lot of young guys playing. I think people are going to definitely learn about us soon. We have a chip on our shoulder because a lot of people are counting us out but we have ball players at Briarcrest.”
The Saints have all new receivers and will rely on Tucker Lowrance (right tackle), Wes Davis and Nate Bledsoe (offensive and defensive lineman). Austin will run the base 4-3 that can go 3-3 stack. Linebackers Alex Batson, Derrick Carroll Matt Taylor will bring experience. Cade Shivers is a freshman who will start at right guard. Reed Linder is a sophomore wide receiver and defensive back.
The Mustangs, who finished 13-1 last season before losing in the state semifinals, will have to overcome the loss of all-time school rushing leader Lincoln Pare, 2019 6-A Mr. Football who is playing at Arkansas State.
They also lost Grayson Hitt, a receiver who is playing baseball at Alabama and quarterback Ethan Burns, a freshman at Tennessee who is not playing football, and noseguard Deion Harris. They were “big losses” said Thoms.
Thomas looks for Stegall, Mathis and Jay Momon, a junior, to do the majority of rushing. “It’s a three-headed monster,” said Thomas. “They have done a good job so far. We are looking for guys to step up.
Thomas expects Harry Wilkes, senior offensive and defensive lineman, Goold and Nischwitz to get college offers. “Gray has got a big chance to play at the next level. Carson can play at the next level.”
Wilkes, Daniel Laramie (senior left guard), Nischwitz, R.H. Frankland (senior wide receiver, linebacker) are captains. Houston has 14 seniors.
The offense will be in the same style as 2019.
“We want to open up a perfect-storm game. We are going to try to get it done the same way, nasty up front and running the ball first then taking some chances in the air,”said Thomas, who has a mix of young and old on defense with experience and inexperience.
Thomas said that newcomer Jack Greer, 6-5, 240-pound senior tight end/defensive lineman is “getting better with every rep he takes. We look to have Ian Bullock (sophomore running back and linebacker) back in the middle and are looking for big things from him. Luke Needham started last year as a freshman (offensive, defensive lineman). He has added some weight and that experience has really helped him grow in a really nice way.”
Sidelined on Thursday were Houston juniors running back/cornerback Will Stegall with a broken collarbone and wide receiver/defensive back Colton Inman who is scheduled to have surgery Sept. 11 for labrum repair.
The Saints will host Pope John Paul II (2-0) from Hendersonville at 7 p.m. Friday.
“We have the grit that no other teams have. We get after it. We have fun. I think that will be the big difference when we match up against somebody that may be a little more skilled than us,” said Dallas.
Gentry said, “This is the second week in a row that we have been picked to lose and we came out with the win. That is all that matters.”
Smith said the Mustangs, who play at Evangelical Christian School next Friday and have an open date this Friday, will have to “forget” about the loss from Briarcrest and learn from it.
“We have to recognize our mistakes and we just to clean up our game,” said Nischwitz.
Thomas was proud of the Mustangs effort.
“We have lost to two good football teams. At the end of the day, we don’t have to beat Briarcrest and Christian Brothers to do what we want to do. We want to get back to the semifinals and win that game and go back to the state championship and win that game,” he said. “We found out a lot about ourselves. There are a lot of teams that would like to be 0-2 right now and playing football. I am not going to cry about it (Briarcrest loss). I am going to look at film and we are going to get better from here.”
Nischwitz said, “We are going to accomplish a regular season record of something and two. I say something and two because of how unpredictable this season is. I hope we have our games but as we all know (COVID) has a mind of its own.”