MAYFIELD, Ky. – Virtually no one gave the Rockets a prayer against the second-ranked team in the state. The prejudice was clear and frank.
Exhibit A: Mayfield's 42-7 win at Crittenden four weeks ago.
Exhibit B: The Cardinals multi-faceted offense that had posted 118 points in two post-season games.
Exhibit C: A Cardinal defense that stymied Crittenden in the first matchup and had not allowed a single point in the playoffs.
Oddsmakers didn't even need to sharpen their pencils to figure this one. The sequel was sure to be more of the same. Even Mayfield coach Joe Morris admitted it.
"Everybody thought we were going to blow them out, but I will tell you they're a good football team. They'd only lost two games. They whipped us in the first half," Morris said. "We were fortunate to come out of it with a victory. We made some mistakes; they made some mistakes; we just found a way to win."
Eke out a win they did. Mayfield took advantage of a couple of Rocket mistakes on special teams to escape with a 31-28 state quarterfinal victory. The difference was by the slightest margin and every play had consequences. The ones that stuck out after the game's end were mistakes, but it took a tremendous effort for the seventh-ranked Rockets to be in a position as spoiler late in the game.
Crittenden still had its chances in the waning minutes after holding Mayfield on downs at the Rocket 26. However, three passes and one run failed to produce anything against a Mayfield defense that played with more inspiration in the second half behind freshman leader Jonathan Jackson at linebacker. His playmaking late stopped the Rockets on crucial downs.
"When you get blown out by a team like we did the first time, it would be easy to not come out and play," said Rocket coach Al Starnes. "We had a couple of special teams breakdowns and that was the difference in the game. Otherwise the kids played great.
"Credit Mayfield. We had them on the ropes. We had a chance to win the game, but they stepped it up when they had to," he added.
Crittenden led 28-17 in the second half, but two unanswered Mayfield touchdowns in the fourth period sealed the deal for the seven-time state champion Cardinals. Mayfield – winner of 19 First Region titles – will host Beechwood next week with the winner earning a trip to the state championship game at Bowling Green.
Mayfield embarrassed the Rockets during the regular season, but senior lineman Aaron Berry said he knew this time it would be different. Starnes said his plan to try to out-scheme Mayfield the first time backfired. This time, he asked his boys to simply line up and compete in a traditional Crittenden style of smash-mouth football.
"Never count the Rockets out," said Berry. "That was fluke the first time. We knew they had threats, we just had to limit them."
Crittenden's defensive line set the tempo in the first half while Rocket quarterback J.D. Gray rushed for two touchdowns and 174 of his game-high 205 yards. A muffed punt gave Mayfield a short field on its first touchdown and the Cardinals sustained a late first-half drive to trim Crittenden's lead to 21-17.
Right after halftime, where close games are often won or lost, the Rockets had opportunities to tighten the noose, but failed. When Mayfield running back Tyreese Murrell fumbled on two consecutive series in the third period, Crittenden could not capitalize.
"That hurt us," Starnes said. "If we could have gotten something right there it might have given us the momentum."
The Rockets did manage to score after a short Mayfield punt gave them good field position in Cardinal territory. Gray found the end zone from 25 yards out to give his team an 11-point lead with 4:39 left in the third.
In the fourth quarter, Mayfield snatched the tempo after Xavier Shelton, the Cardinals highly talented receiver, caught a 37-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Luke Guhy then Taylor Sullivan blocked a punt to set up the go-ahead TD by Murrell with just over eight minutes to play.
Minus giving up those late TDs, Crittenden's defense was relentless. Dylan Clark, Dyllan Thornton and Berry were playmakers the whole game, as were others.
The Rockets had a couple of late offensive series, but never got the ball across midfield. Starnes described the close encounter with a second straight regional championship as somewhat of a moral victory after playing so poorly against Mayfield in the regular season matchup.
"I am proud of these guys. As coaches, all we can ask is that they give it their all and play with heart. They did that. They gave everything they had," the coach said.
So for those who might have prejudged the Rockets, hear this evidence:
Exhibit A: Crittenden lost only three games this season to teams that finished a cumulative 24-2.
Exhibit B: The Rockets were within four points of an unprecedented second straight trip to the Class A Final Four.
Exhibit C: When few believed, Coach Starnes and his boys brought their best to the field and nearly made history. Nothing short of an heroic Mayfield comeback prevented the mighty Cardinals from falling for a second straight year to the Rockets.
Pictured at top is defensive end Dylan Clark (6) making a play in the backfield against Tyreese Murrell.
Directly above is QB J.D. Gray trying to pass his team deep out of its own territory late in the game.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Crittenden 7 14 7 0
Mayfield 7 10 0 14
M-Javarius Richardson 10 pass from Luke Guhy (Marc Wynstra kick) 6:44, 1st
CC-J.D. Gray 4 run (J.R. Adams kick) 2:10, 1st
CC-Andrew Freeman 2 run (Adams kick) 9:28, 2nd
M-Wynstra 39 field goal 5:32, 2nd
CC-Gray 67 run (Adams kick) 5:20, 2nd
M-Matthew Shultz 1 run (Wynstra kick) 1:28, 2nd
CC-Gray 25 run (Adams kick) 4:39, 3rd
M-Xavier Shelton 37 pass from Guhy (Wynstra kick) 11:51, 4th
M-Tyreese Murrell 3 run (Wynstra kick) 8:22, 4th
First Downs: Crittenden 7, Mayfield 9
Rushing: Crittenden 40-246, Mayfield 39-132
Passing: Crittenden 4-12-0, 41 yds., Mayfield 10-14-0, 136 yds.
Total Yards: Crittenden 287, Mayfield 268
Penalties: Crittenden 5-38, Mayfield 8-45
Fumbles/Lost: Crittenden 0, Mayfield 4-3
Rushing: Crittenden-Gray 20-205, Freeman 12-36, Brian Berry 7-5, Tanner Nix 1-0. Mayfield-Murrell 28-125, Shultz 2-2, Richardson 1-2, Jonathan Jackson 2-4, Shelton 1-1, Guhy 5-(-2).
Passing: Crittenden-Gray 4-12-0, 41 yds. Mayfield-Guhy 10-14-0, 136 yds.
Receiving: Crittenden-Dylan Clark 3-38, Nix 1-3. Mayfield-Shelton 7-116, Richardson 3-20.
Defense: A.Berry 3 solos, 3 assists, TFL; sack, fumble recovery; Bebout 3 assists; B.Berry 5 solos, 3 assists; Clark 6 solos, 7 assists, sack, fumble recovery; Collins 3 solos, assist; Cudnik 4 solos, 3 assists; Fletcher 4 solos, 6 assists; Freeman solo, 3 assists; Gray 4 solos, assist; Hernandez 2 solos, 3 assists; caused fumble, fumble recovery; Kirby solo; Nix 4 solos, TFL; Thornton 10 solos, 4 assists, 2 TFL; Werne 3 solos, 5 assist.
Pizza Hut Players of the Game: Defense Dyllan Thornton, Offense J.D. Gray, Linemen Aaron Berry and Dylan Clark.
Records: Crittenden 10-3, Mayfield 12-1