MJ awaits visit from Oakland
MT. JULIET — Mt. Juliet answered naysayers about its strength of schedule Friday night with a convincing 35-14 upset of Blackman in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs at Mel Brown Athletic Complex.
The Golden Bears bounced back from a fumbled opening kickoff and ensuing Blackman touchdown to eventually dominate the Blaze on a blustery night on a muddy field, advancing to next Friday’s 7 p.m. quarterfinal against top-ranked Oakland at the Brown Complex.
The Blaze, whose only previous loss was to Oakland, returned to Murfreesboro with a final 10-2 mark for 2018.
With the wind affecting both teams’ passing games, it became a running game, and a matter of whose mistakes would hurt which team most. In the end, Blackman’s three lost fumbles were more costly than Mt. Juliet’s two.
After Trey Knox scored from the wildcat on a 2-yard run to stake Blackman to an early lead, Mt. Juliet offensive coordinator Zach White went through his call sheet to find what would work and found ramming Justin Harrigan up the middle worked best.
The battering ram from Pennsylvania set Mt. Juliet up for the first of quarterback Alvin Mixon’s three touchdown runs, this one on a 15-yard run to the left pylon off the read-option to tie the score early in the second quarter.
Then it was Blackman’s turn to fumble the kickoff as the Bears recovered at the Blaze 35-yard line. Following a 30-yard run by Connor Ruzek, Mixon weaved through the defense for 10 yards and the go-ahead score 25 seconds after his tying touchdown.
Amazingly, Mt. Juliet got a third straight possession by recovering a surprise onside kick. But Blackman’s Luke Hayes blocked Robbie Brewington’s 31-yard field goal try and returned it 36 yards to the Bear 44.
By then, defensive coordinator Greg Abner and, it seemed, every other coach on the sideline, had figured out the Blaze’s scheme and were all signaling in defensive signals.
“We diagnosed everything,” Perry said. “There was no stone left unturned. I could not be more proud of our coaching staff, of our players, because our offense, defense and special teams, we needed those reps. Just like on kickoffs, with us getting three fumbles, those are things that are huge in situations like this.
“Coaches say ‘don’t play with emotion, don’t play with emotion’. I’m just not that guy because I can’t coach without emotion. And they played that way tonight.”
It worked as the Blaze couldn’t make hay with their field position and had to punt.
It continued in the second half as Blackman had to punt from midfield. The ball made an abrupt stop on a rugged field at the 30, from where Michael Ruttlen scored on a 70-yard wingback trap to give the Bears breathing room at 21-7.
Mt. Juliet got another unanswered possession as the Blaze again fumbled the kickoff. But the Bears stalled and tried to punt, only to have a high snap leave Blackman with the ball at the MJ 40.
Quarterback Drew Beam’s first completion of the night got Blackman inside the 20 and Ta’micus Napier’s 9-yard run (the transfer from McGavock had 91 yards on 14 carries before exiting in the fourth quarter with an injury) put the Blaze inside the 10.
“Obviously, he’s (Napier) a really good back,” said Perry, noting the Bears faced him twice when he was at McGavock. “You got to have three sets of eyes in the box. Our guys did a great job with that all night long, playing the cutback lanes, because that’s where they’re really good at walling people off and cutting back, and our guys took advantage of that.
“And our defensive backs were awesome. Our defensive backs have tremendous speed and we made the windows tight for them.”
Perry admitted the cold wind was a factor, for both sides.
“We asked before the game if we could have a wet, cold phone booth to play in tonight and that’s exactly what we played in tonight, and that’s okay with us,” Perry said.
Blackman’s third fumble of the night, recovered by linebacker Britain Steele, killed the Blaze’s chances of a comeback.
Or so it seemed, as the Blaze got the ball right back on a Mt. Juliet turnover on the 12.
But the Bear defense bowed its neck, focusing on Napier and stopping him at the 4 before a delay-of-game penalty backed up the Blaze on fourth down, from where Beam’s pass went incomplete.
Mt. Juliet went 91 yards the other way on runs by Harrigan, who had 85 yards on 22 carries, and a 37-yard jet sweep by Ruttlen, who led the Bears with 143 on nine, before Ruzek’s second 30-yard run of the night landed him in the end zone early in the fourth quarter.
The Bears finished with 340 rushing yards, not an unusual stat this season. But having two runners with more than 80 yards and one with over 140 (Mixon finished with 60) is because Mt. Juliet fields so many rushing threats in its wing-T.
“These guys all year long have been so unselfish about who’s getting the ball, who’s getting touches,” Perry said. “They block for each other, and that’s huge.
“And, cliche of the year, but our offensive line was tremendous, headed up by Coach (Curtis) Grah. They were special tonight.”`
In desperation, Blackman went for it on fourth down, only to have Beam called for intentional grounding, giving Mt. Juliet the ball at the Blaze 17. Mixon muscled in the 1-yard scoring sneak for his hat trick with 6:29 to play.
Blackman got a late touchdown on Beam’s 6-yard run with 4:45 to go.