Friday night was a long time coming for the Madison County community and a football program in its 63rd season.
Prior to Friday night’s four-hour road trip to play No. 1 seed Ridgeland High School, the Red Raiders had never won a state playoff game. With a late touchdown run by Dayton Gresham and a game-clinching interception by Colby Smith, Madison County changed its history, upsetting the Panthers 27-20 and advancing to the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs. Madison County travels to Mary Persons next Friday night.
The magnitude of winning the programs first state playoff game wasn’t lost on anybody, especially head coach Chris Smith who played at Madison County in the early 1990s and has coached the Raiders since 2012.
“We had everything stacked against us; we could have easily folded,” Smith said. “I’m proud of our guys, it’s all about them and our community. To do something that’s never been done before, that’s awesome. I’m so proud of our boys. I’m so glad for our kids and our community.”
His son Colby Smith, quarterback and safety, reiterated his coach’s statement.
“It’s crazy, we talked about this all year. We talked about making history all week,” he said.
Dayton Gresham added, “It doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t seem like much, but it means a lot to the people in the community and the people on the team. We’ll look back 20 years from now and it’s something we’ll be able to tell our kids. It’s a blessing.”
While Madison County (5-6, 1-3 Region 8-AAAA) won as a team in all three segments of the game, the win would not have been possible without running back and receiver Martavian Cooper. He carried the ball 12 times for 158 yards and caught three passes for 73 yards. Cooper scored Madison County’s first three touchdowns of the game starting with a 46-yard touchdown run on a toss sweep in the first quarter. He added a 20-yard touchdown catch and a 16-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
“Coach Berryman always preaches to me to stay behind my blockers,” Cooper said. “I’m getting five or 10 yards per carry if I stay behind my blockers so I trained myself all week to stay behind. I would not have been in the end zone without my blockers.
Cooper’s first touchdown set the tone for how the offense would run the rest of the game. The Red Raiders started on their own 21-yard line and got the drive going with a 20-yard carry by Gresham. A few plays later, Cooper took a toss sweep to the right side of the field with a convoy of blockers ahead of him. Forty-six yards later, Cooper had Madison County ahead 7-0.
All the momentum seemed to be on Madison County’s side when Ridgeland (6-5, 5-1 Region 6-AAAA) mishandled a squib kick and the Red Raiders recovered at the Panthers’ 45-yard line. But Madison County failed on 4th-and-short and gave the ball back to Ridgeland at its own 36. The Panthers scored soon after with a 57-yard run by their speedy fullback. Ridgeland missed the point after kick at Madison County maintained a 7-6 lead with 40 seconds left in the first quarter.
A 17-yard carry by Cooper as the quarter ended had the Red Raiders’ offense rolling again, but the drive was halted by a fumble giving Ridgeland the ball at the Madison County 39-yard-line. Ridgeland started its next drive with a 29-yard fullback run and ended with a rush into the end zone from inches away. The Panthers converted the PAT this time to take a 13-7 lead with 9:16 left in the second quarter.
Madison County had a chance to regain the lead before halftime driving all the way to the Ridgeland 9-yard-line. Colby Smith scrambled and found Devin Welborn as time expired. Welborn broke a tackle and raced to the pylon but was tackled two yards shy of the goal line.
Madison County kicked another squib kick to open the second half and again Ridgeland failed to field the kick. The ball bounced to the Panthers’ 35-yard-line where the Red Raiders recovered. The ensuing drive was all Cooper. He picked up 17 yards on first down before getting wide open past defenders in the end zone for a touchdown pass. The point after kick bounced off the goal post, holding the score at 13-13 with 10 minutes left in the third quarter. Smith ended the night with four pass completions for 83 yards.
“On that play, they had safeties spinning and when they spin, that allows him to get by,” Colby Smith said. “When they spin, he has a step on them already. They were spinning the whole time, so, coach saw that and we saw that the corner on that side was weak, so we took advantage.”
Ridgeland expected another squib kick, but Madison County kicked it deep and the ball stopped bouncing before it reached the end zone. The Panthers’ return team picked it up, but the Red Raiders made the tackle at the 3-yard-line.
The Panthers got away from their own end zone with a first down, and took a gamble attempting to convert fourth-and-inches from their own 22. The gamble backfired as Ridgeland fumbled the snap and let the ball bounce back to the 16-yard-line. Ridgeland recovered but Madison County took over. Cooper wasted no time taking the ball to the house on another toss sweep with a convoy of blockers. Madison County led 20-13 with 5:42 left in the third quarter.
Madison County’s defense shut down Ridgeland again on its next time out, but a great punt by the Panthers pinned the Red Raiders at their own 2-yard-line and a fumble two plays later led to another short touchdown run by the Panthers. With 2:34 left in the third quarter, the game was tied 20-20.
Both offenses stalled on their next possessions. Then, with just over seven minutes left in the game, Madison County started the drive that will live on in Red Raider lore.
The Red Raiders took over at their own 25 and started the march with a 19-yard run by Cooper. Two personal foul penalties totaling 30 yards helped the Raiders move deep into Ridgeland territory. Madison County eventually moved down to the Panthers’ 15-yard-line, facing a third-and-eight situation.
A false start penalty moved the Red Raiders back to the 20-yard-line, but the team rebounded with a 10-yard-run by Cooper to set up fourth-and-three with less than three minutes left on the clock. Madison County wouldn’t need to run a play to pick up the first-down however as Ridgeland’s defensive line jumped before the snap to hand the Red Raiders a first down at the five-yard-line. Gresham did the rest with a five-yard plow into the end zone, giving Madison County a 27-20 lead with 1:44 on the clock. Gresham finished the game with 14 carries for 77 yards.
“All night I hadn’t really bused any plays,” Gresham said. “But coaches kept telling me it would open up eventually. We were going to keep running outside and the second they widen out, we’re going to run up the middle. If it wasn’t for my linemen, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Ridgeland restarted at its own 34-yard line but failed to move the ball thanks to a heavy pass rush by Kiya Hubbard. On fourth-and-nine from its own 35-yard-line, Ridgeland threw up a prayer to keep the game alive. Colby Smith intercepted the Hail Mary and fell down at the Madison County 28-yard-line with just 27 seconds left. Ridgeland had no more timeouts.
“Right after the ball got in my hands, the game was over,” Smith said. “I knew we had to take a knee. It was a great feeling of joy that hit me when I caught that ball.”
As both teams trotted out their 11 players for the final play, the celebration began on the Madison County sideline. Chris Smith hugged whoever he could find. Welborn, nursing an injured knee embraced teammates.
As Colby Smith’s knee hit the turf to run out the clock, the celebration spilled on to the field where Smith, Cooper, Gresham and the rest of the Madison County offense joined the party. Before meeting as a team, Smith had his team bring the celebration to the Madison County band members who made the road trip.
“Our kids didn’t give up; we kept battling,” Smith said. “We got the ball back late and we just ate the clock. That’s what we do; that’s what our offense is designed to do. Our offensive line played great all night. I’m proud of those guys. They got after it.
“What I’m proud about is when we had a chance to hang our heads, we didn’t. We kept battling and took care of our business.”