For the second year in a row, the Madison County Red Raiders are 2-0.
But Friday’s win over Jackson County didn’t come easily. The Red Raiders had to battle from behind to win the game 27-21, with Tyler Gary scoring the game-winning touchdown on a fumble returned 45 yards for a score with just 1:32 left in the game.
“I just thank the good Lord above,” said Gary. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been able to make that play. I love my team and family and was glad to be able to do it for them.”
Red Raider senior Malik Freeman said Friday’s win was meaningful for the big group of Madison County seniors and the team overall.
“It feels good; it means a lot,” said Freeman, who battled cramps Friday but made a couple of key grabs on offense in the first half and a timely interception in the second half.
MCHS coach Chris Smith said his squad showed resilience in the win.
“It’s definitely a confidence builder,” said Smith. “The kids had their backs against the wall. They were kind of deflated at the half after not playing like they wanted to, but to come back and play like they did in the second half was huge for our kids. We just told them not to give up, to keep fighting and that eventually the breaks will turn your way. And they did.”
The team overcame a 21-7 halftime deficit to keep the Red Raiders’ all-time record over Jackson County perfect at 11-0.
“We just kind of influenced each other,” said Freeman of his team’s huddle at halftime outside the east end zone. “We were just trying to get each other back on track, because we knew we could win.”
Fleet-footed Red Raider quarterback Ethan South scored two touchdowns in the second half to help Madison County knot the score at 21. He said the Red Raiders knew they could bounce back in the second half.
“We really just decided we needed to start playing together more as a team and stop doing individual stuff,” said South, who finished the night with 16 carries for 80 yards and two touchdowns. “Everything was a team effort instead of an individual thing.”
Madison County drew first blood Friday.
The game plan was simple on the opening drive that included five consecutive pass plays from quarterback Cade Hancock. The Red Raiders worked their way down to the Jackson County two-yard line and with 9:03 left in the opening quarter, KJ Burton found the end zone giving the visiting Raiders an early 7-0 lead.
The Panthers tied the game with 2:15 left in the opening quarter following a Red Raider punt that was returned for a touchdown. The Raiders attempted to cut into the lead in the closing seconds of the half, but a 27-yard field goal attempt by Levi Larkins was blocked.
The game then took a turn in the home team’s advantage as Jackson County jumped out to a 21-7 lead with 59 seconds left in the half. Instead of packing up at the break, the Raiders rebounded in a big way in the second half.
Smith said he spoke to his team at the half about effort, execution and protecting the football. The team turned the ball over in the first half, letting the Panthers take control of the game.
“We got on them hard about ball security and executing on the line and staying on their blocks,” said Smith.
Alex Azevedo fell on a fumble at the Panther 17-yard line and with the turnover, the momentum quickly switched as South scored from three plays later from 13 yards away to cut the lead to 21-14.
On Jackson County’s ensuing drive, a pass from Panther quarterback Jacob Lewis was picked off by Cordelius Lumpkin at the Panther 38 yard line setting up the Raiders’ tying score.
South found the end zone again this time on a sweep from 17 yards away to even things up at 21-21.
“It really was all our offensive line,” said South. “They recognized that we were going over to the left side and whenever we bootlegged it to the right, it was wide open.”
Jackson County had a final threat to regain the lead after working their way deep into Raider territory with 7:54 left. The Panthers were forced to attempt a field goal from 27 yards away, but the kick sailed wide left. It wasn’t until late in the quarter when the Raiders took a final lead on Gary’s scoop and score.
The Raider defense then forced lost yardage on Jackson County’s final drive, with KJ Burton helping seal the win with a big sack in the closing seconds.
South said Jackson County posed a real challenge.
“They’re a good football team,” he said. “Their quarterback is very good. He’s experienced. He can throw the ball really well. He can run the ball when he needs to.”
South also said he feels good about the Red Raiders.
“I think we have a really good chance to have a good record this year,” said South. “We definitely have enough talent. We just have to put in the work every week at practice. And whenever our time comes to play, we just have to make plays. As long as we execute, we’ll be fine.”
The Raiders’ defense came to play in Friday’s win. Jacob Lewis’ solid quarterback play was disrupted on several occasions after the Raiders broke up several pass plays.
RaShawn Gresham broke up a pass inside the Raider 10 yard line and on the very next play, Jayln Howard recovered a fumble to end the Jackson County drive.
Later in the game, a 46-yard punt by Eli Dixon pinned the Panthers back at their own two yard line.
“He changed the game a lot the way he was able to punt the ball,” said Smith of Dixon, who finished the night with four punts for 44.3 yards.
Three plays later, Cameron Stevenson broke up a deep pass play at midfield to force a Panther punt.
“Cameron played a heck of a game,” said Smith. “He had seven pass breakups, which is probably a school record.”
The Panthers regrouped on offense however and took a 14-7 lead with 4:00 left until halftime after Lewis scored on a five yard quarterback keep. Jackson County’s third touchdown came late in the half after Lewis passed the Panthers down to the Raider one yard line where they eventually scored.
Madison County will seek its third-straight win Friday at home against Eastside at 7:30 p.m. The Eagles are 1-0 after downing 6A Alcovy in their season-opener 36-6 Friday.
Smith said Eastside will pose a different challenge than Jackson County, which liked to put the ball in the air. The coach said the Eagles simply try to run the ball down their opponents’ throats.