MRA defenders swarm the Briarcrest quarterback.
MRA defenders swarm the Briarcrest quarterback.
MRA staged an epic comeback a year ago in Madison to stun Briarcrest Christian.

The Patriots threatened to do the same thing here Friday night at Clayton Field, but the once-burned Saints weren’t letting it happen again.

Led by ultra-shifty quarterback Michael Dallas, Briarcrest avenged last year’s setback with a 42-20 homecoming victory over MRA.

The Saints jumped out to a 20-0 lead only to see the Patriots pull to within six, 20-14, early in the third quarter. That was as close as MRA would come, though, as Briarcrest outscored the Patriots 22-6 the rest of the way to remain undefeated and soothe at least some of the pain caused by last year’s meltdown in Mississippi.

“We felt like we were okay, even after we fell behind early on,” said MRA receiver Tyler Starnes, who had six catches for 156 yards and one touchdown. “We knew we had to just keep fighting, keep fighting. And that's what we did. We were right there in the third quarter, we just didn’t execute the way we needed to.”

Briarcrest, ranked No. 8 among Tennessee teams according to MaxPreps, improved to 6-0. The Saints have outscored those six opponents by an average of nearly 30 points per game.

MRA dropped to 5-2 heading into next week’s homecoming game against Parklane. The Patriots have now lost two straight after a 5-0 start. Both of those losses came against really good competition on the road. First Philadelphia, ranked No. 2 in Class 2A, then Briarcrest, which has at least three bonafide Division 1 players on its team.

That number doesn’t include Dallas, a 6-0, 170-pound jitterbug who is quick as a hiccup. The junior signal caller RPO’d his way to 100 yards rushing on 14 carries, including scampers of 23, 23, 18 and 25 yards, and passing for 190 more yards. He threw two touchdown passes and set up all but one of the other ones. Nearly every time the Saints needed a big play, Dallas delivered.

“He brought another dimension to the game with him being able to run and scramble the way he can,” MRA linebacker Stone Blanton said.

Dallas got plenty of help from Ole Miss commit Jabari Smith, a speedy running back who gained 110 yards on 27 carries, including a 56-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter to essentially put the outcome on ice.

Operating behind a massive offensive line, Dallas and Co. compiled 385 yards of total offense – 194 rushing, 191 passing. MRA, which welcomed the return of Blanton to the mix, did a good job at times of slowing down the well-balanced Briarcrest offense. However, the Saints did to the Patriots what the Patriots usually do to other teams – hit them with a slew of big plays.

MRA, meanwhile, got off to a slow start for the second straight week and found themselves in catchup mode the rest of the night after digging a 20-0 hole early in the second quarter.

“We came out slow in the beginning,” Starnes said. “Everybody was screwing up. We had a lot of dropped passes, things like that. You can’t afford to do that, especially against a good team like the one we played tonight.”

Briarcrest now leads the series 2-1. The Saints are scheduled to play a return game in Madison next year. Even though the home team has won each of the first three games in the intersectional matchup, it has been a series of streaks. Two years ago here, MRA took an early 7-0 lead before Briarcrest rattled off 27 unanswered points to win 27-7. Then last year, MRA scored 21 unanswered points in the final seven minutes to rally for a 42-35 victory.

Fast forward to Friday night, and Briarcrest scored the first 20 points of the game. The Saints converted three crucial fourth downs – one on each of three opening drives – including a fake punt that went for 33 yards. Once again, Dallas, who doubles as the punter, was the culprit.

The Saints had all the momentum at that point and seemed to be on the verge of blowing out MRA. However, the Patriots found their footing and actually made things interesting in the third quarter. MRA got a 5-yard touchdown pass from Philip Short to Joe Perkins near the end of the second quarter to pull to within 20-7, then pulled to within 20-14 on a 85-yard touchdown pass from Short to Starnes.

The home crowd grew antsy, even more so after Hayes Puckett blocked a 23-yard field goal attempt, wiping out a long, methodical Briarcrest drive. All of a sudden, MRA had life, and hope. Momentarily, at least. Five plays later, Short threw a Pick 6 and what was a six-point deficit ballooned to a 14-point deficit. A few minutes later, Small housed it from 56 yards out to make it 35-14.

Short and Perkins connected again, this time from seven yards out, to make it 35-20 with just under three minutes remaining. The damage had been done, though.

“It looked like they were going to whip us pretty bad early on,” MRA head coach Herbert Davis said. “We competed though, that’s something we’ve done all year. And I’m proud of our kids for that. The problem is we’re not executing. We spotted them 20 points. We dropped too many passes . . . as bad as we played it still should’ve been 20-14 at the half. It just comes down to us blowing too many assignments on defense, and not making better decisions on offense. We’re not doing the things we’re supposed to do.”

“We’ve got to step it up and start doing what we’re supposed to do,” Davis continued. “All of us have to figure it out, starting with me, the rest of the coaching staff, all the way down. I told them we’ve got to look in the mirror and figure out what we’ve got to do better individually and put that together collectively as a team. We're not dead, we just need to fix some things."

Two of the major contributors in last year’s comeback win weren’t around to help MRA this time around, and a third, Short, played on a gimpy ankle for the second week in a row. Wideout Landes Purnell, he of the late 71-yard touchdown reception and punt block, is now in college. Rayf Vinson, who had the game-winning Pick 6 a year ago, sustained a season-ending knee injury with 1 minute, 44 seconds remaining in the first quarter, dealing a significant blow to the Patriots. The junior is arguably the Patriots’ most versatile player and was emerging as a star on offense, defense and special teams.

MRA has now lost Tyler Latham, who was a two-way standout at running back and in the secondary, along with Vinson to season ending injuries. Starting receiver Justin Williams (foot injury) sat out his second straight game, and defensive lineman Donovan Hasley was also lost to an ongoing shoulder injury in the second half. And those are just a few of the names on what is a long, ever-growing injury report.

“We’re pretty banged up for sure . . . we’ve lost some good football players," Davis said. "I hate we’ve lost Rayf, too. That’s a big blow.”

Starnes has emerged as a key player. He now has 11 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns the past two games. And Russ Sceroler had a standout game a week ago in the 21-14 loss at Philadelphia. However, Short doesn’t have the weapons he had when the season started, and that has showed the last two weeks. It doesn’t help matters that he’s playing on a bum wheel. Short practiced sparingly this week, and wore a boot throughout the week. He wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to play Friday, but he was healthy enough to give it a go.

Short completed only 13 of 35 passes for 233 yards. Three of those went for touchdowns – two to Perkins and one to Starnes – giving him 19 on the season and 53 (school record) for his career. On the flip side, he threw his first interception of the season on MRA’s first possession of the second half and followed that with a second interception three possessions later. It was returned 30 yards for a score.

Short, a Mississippi Gulf Coast commit, has now gone 28 for 73 (38 percent) with five touchdown passes the past two games after completing 74 percent (67 for 91) in the Patriots’ first five games.

“It’s a combination of things there,” Davis said. “He’s not 100 percent, he doesn’t have some of the people around him that he did have, and last week we didn’t protect as well as we should have, especially in the first half. He’s going to be fine, though. Decision making – that’s one of the big things we’re going to work on with him this week.”

MRA did show some improvement in the running game, picking up 73 yards on 22 carries against a really good defensive front that included 6-foot-5, 299-pound Omari Thomas, a heavily sought after four star recruit. “We got physically whipped at times, but they are really, really good. I thought we improved (running game) some, so you have to credit the offensive line for that.”

The return of Blanton was also a bright spot for MRA. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound sophomore had missed the previous five games after suffering an arm injury a few minutes into the season-opener. He was credited with eight tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble in his return. Blanton and Willie Latham (10 tackles) form one of the most formidable linebacker duos in the league.

“It felt good being back out there with my teammates,” Blanton said. “We gave it all we had. We’re a tight group, and we’ve got a good defense. We’re never going to give up. A team is going to have to play four quarters to beat us.”

That’s precisely what Briarcrest did.

“I felt like at halftime we knew we had made a lot of mistakes and still felt that the game was still very winnable,” Puckett said. “We came out and our offense scored pretty quick in the second half and the defense made some big stops. I felt like we had all the momentum after the blocked field goal, and it looked like they were getting tired. At the end of the day, though, Briarcrest is a great team and they out-played us tonight.”

Coming off a three-game road swing and back-to-back losses, MRA will try to regain its mojo and get back on the winning track this Friday when it hosts Parklane for homecoming. The run-dominant Pioneers will enter 5-1 and on the heels of a 49-7 victory over Brookhaven Academy.

“This game is on us,” Perkins said. “We’ve got to settle down and do what we’re supposed to do, just play ball. The main thing now is forgetting about this game. It’s over. Next week is a conference game, that’s what it’s all about. We need to regroup and finish strong and make our mark.”