The Marshall County Tigers (8-3) made a surprisingly early exit from the postseason Friday night when they went on the road and suffered a gut wrenching 24-20 loss to the Lexington Big Red Tigers (7-4) in the first round of the TSSAA playoffs.
Although Lexington finished second in Region 6-AAA, MCHS came into the contest as the favorite after the Big Red Tigers posted a pedestrian 6-4 record during the regular season, which included a 41-0 shellacking at the hands of arch rival Jackson South Side seven days earlier.
Despite seeing their offense shackled to the sidelines for much of the evening, Marshall County held a tenuous 20-17 advantage late in the game thanks to an 18-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Kareem Peterson with 4:43 left in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers though had their hearts broken in the waning moments of the contest when Lexington took a 24-20 lead on a 15-yard touchdown pass by Stu Jones with thirty-two seconds left before MCHS came up empty on their final drive.
"We didn't end the season the season the way we wanted to end it," said Marshall County head coach Don Thomas. "I'm real proud of our senior class though. I thought they had an outstanding season. I'm just disappointed we couldn't end the year better for them."
While LHS lacked a big play threat at the offensive skill positions, Lexington moved the chains by pounding the ball between the tackles and kept MCHS' explosive offense off the field. The Big Red Tigers ran 71 plays overall and finished with 18 first downs and 322 yards of total offense, which included 279 yards rushing on 60 carries.
"We just didn't make stops when we had to," said Thomas. "We've got to be more physical on defense. We hope to get some young guys in there and build on this experience. We had five starters on defense that weren't on the team last year. We have to get guys in the program as freshman instead of their junior or senior year."
Fullback Tylon Brown was the focal point of LHS' ground game and rumbled for 136 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. Jones also hurt the Tigers on quarterback bootlegs and option plays and rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts, while tailback Bradley Gordon tallied 48 yards on 15 carries.
Lexington had little success throwing the ball until the end of the game, as Jones completed just 4 of 11 passes for 43 yards to go along with one touchdown and one interception.
Defensive lineman Michael Murphy did all he could do to prolong MCHS' season and racked up a game high 14 tackles to pace Marshall County's defense. Linebacker Shelby Sharp also notched 11 tackles, while Casey Merchant and Cody Henson both had eight tackles. Eric Cottle and David Tadajewski registered seven tackles apiece as well with Cottle recording a sack, and Cody Tucker and Andrew Deleon each had six stops. Peterson recorded the Tigers' lone interception and had three tackles.
Marshall County, conversely, ran just 38 plays, but still finished with a respectable 271 yards of total offense. MCHS though was unable to take care of the ball for the third straight week and committed two costly turnovers that killed a pair of potential scoring opportunities.
Senior quarterback Jake Morris turned in a solid performance in his last game for the Tigers, as he completed 12 of 21 passes for 178 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
Sophomore wide out Broderick Tears was Morris' primary target and caught eight balls for 103 yards. Peterson also hauled in three receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown, while Trevor Carter had one catch for 20 yards.
MCHS, meanwhile, tallied only 93 yards on the ground, but averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
Senior tailback Justin Braden rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries to cap an outstanding career at Marshall County. With his effort Friday, Braden finished the season with 1,369 yards on the ground and 17 rushing touchdowns.
The Tigers got off to a good start, as they took a 3-0 lead early in the first quarter on a field goal by Sam Estes after marching 55 yards in seven plays on their opening possession. Braden sandwiched runs of seven and 20 yards around a six-yard catch by Tears, before Morris hit Carter for a 20-yard gain to move the ball down to the Lexington 10. MCHS then picked up just two yards on their next three plays, but Estes split the uprights from 26 yards out to put Marshall County on top.
LHS then drove to the Marshall County 34 on their first offensive series with the help of a pass interference penalty, but picked up only three yards on their next three plays before Murphy dropped Jones for no gain on 4th and 7 to give the Tigers the ball back.
Following an MCHS punt, Peterson gave Marshall County excellent field position when he picked off Jones and returned the interception 57 yards down to the Lexington 13.
The Tigers though were unable to cash in on the scoring opportunity, as Morris was stripped off the ball three plays later on a scramble attempt and Jones recovered the ball at the 4.
LHS then tied the game at 3-3 with twenty-six seconds left in the second quarter on a 32-yard field goal Kolby Chambers after embarking on an epic 19-play 91-yard drive that chewed more than nine and half minutes off the clock.
In the second half, MCHS forced Lexington to punt on their opening possession of the third quarter before putting together a seven-play 57-yard touchdown drive to take a 10-3 lead. After Marshall County was flagged for holding on the second play of the drive, Tears picked up 30 yards on a screen pass to extricate the Tigers from a 2nd and 25 situation. Following an illegal motion penalty on MCHS, Morris hooked up with Tears for consecutive completions of 16 and five yards before Braden ripped off a 12-yard run to move the ball down to the LHS 14. Braden then burst up the middle for a 14-yard touchdown jaunt on the next play, while Estes tacked on the extra point.
The Tiger defense set up the offense with excellent position again a few moments later when Casey Merchant blocked a Lexington punt before Cottle scooped up the ball and rumbled 40 yards down to the LHS 5.
Unfortunately, Marshall County failed to get into the end zone in three plays and had to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Estes to stretch their lead to 13-3.
MCHS' inability to capitalize in the red zone quickly came back to haunt them when Lexington's Brendon Frankell returned the ensuing kickoff 65 yards to the Tiger 16. Brown then scored on an eight-yard touchdown run three plays later while Chambers added the extra point to cut the deficit to 13-10.
On Marshall County's next offensive series, MCHS had a 57-yard touchdown catch by Peterson wiped out due to a holding penalty before Tears was dropped for a nine-yard loss on a botched screen play. Morris completed consecutive passes of 20 and 16 yards to Peterson and Tears respectively to pick up the first down, but Weston Wood picked off Morris two plays later to snuff out the Tiger scoring threat.
Lexington then took a 17-13 midway through the fourth quarter when Jones scored on a 19-yard touchdown run to cap a nine-play 73-yard scoring drive.
Marshall County mounted a swift response and marched 65 yards to pay dirt in just four plays to seize a 20-17 advantage. Following a 16-yard run by Braden, Tears hauled in a 12-yard pass from Morris before Braden scampered for 19 yards. Morris the hit Peterson for an 18-yard touchdown strike while Estes converted the extra point.
MCHS though was unable to hold the lead down the stretch, as Lexington put together a 14-play 72-yard scoring drive in the closing minutes to grab a 24-20 lead. After LHS moved the ball down to the Tiger 15 on 11 consecutive running plays, Jones tossed two straight incompletions before hooking up with Wood for a 15-yard touchdown pass on 3rd and 10.
Marshall County tried desperately to hit a big play downfield on their final possession, but Morris was sacked for an 11-yard loss by Frankell on the first play of the drive before he tossed three straight incompletions to end the contest.