Meridian High was dead.
Needing a win to keep their playoff hopes alive, the Wildcats instead found themselves down three touchdowns less than eight minutes in Friday night. The homecoming crowd at Ray Stadium was silent and Meridian's season was about to be as well.
Except someone forgot to tell the Wildcats. Meridian stormed back from that 21-0 hole and held off visiting Brandon in the closing minutes to win 38-35. And for at least one more week, MHS staved off death.
"We were (dead)," MHS Larry Weems coach said after the Wildcats improved to 6-2 and 2-2 in Division 3-6A. "Looks aren't deceiving. We were.
"I don't know what happened. I don't. I wish I could tell you. We came out flat, made a couple mistakes and they just got rolling.
"We live to fight another day, I guarantee you. I don't know when thay day will be but we're alive to keep fighting and we'll take it."
After that opening quarter that saw Brandon, which fell to 6-2 and 2-2 with two straight losses, completely manhandle Meridian, outgaining the Wildcats 184-5, MHS slowly stormed back. Following a missed 40-yard field goal by Brandon's Jim Speights early in the second quarter, the Wildcats' rally started with two quick first-down runs from quarterback J-Mar Smith. As innocent as they appeared, momentum had started to swing.
"When we start running, nobody can stop us," Smith said. "Once we get running down the field, all we're concerned about is to just keep running."
From there, he and running back Richard L. McQuarley took over. The two combined for 204 yards rushing as the Wildcats pounded on the Brandon defense. Smith scored on a 6-yard run that made it 21-7 with 7:02 left in the half and McQuarley, who churned out 139 yards on 23 carries, had two scoring runs of 1 yard each.
"You have to play as a team and do what you do," McQuarley said. "We knew the defense needed some help and so we were trying to give them some motivation from the offense. And from there, we knew once they got back out there, they'd get it right."
Despite getting shredded in the first quarter, Meridian's defense began to stiffen as well. The Wildcats forced two punts and then got an interception on Brandon's second-quarter drives as it kept giving the MHS offense chances, which it took advantage of. With 43 seconds remaining in the half, Smith found Richard E. McQuarley in between a pair of Brandon defenders from 34 yards out and the Wildcats had clawed within 21-14.
Then Boderick Oliver picked off a Gardner Minshew pass inside the Meridian 15 and returned it to the Bulldogs' 30 with 7 seconds remaining before the break. Following a 6-yard pass to Issac Johnson, Meridian got a 38-yard field goal from Aaron Garrett on the final play of the quarter.
"We talked about it when we went in that we are right back in this thing," Weems said. "The only reason we weren't ahead now is because of the long ball that we couldn't quite get. We're right back in this thing and we are about to get the ball to start it off, and all we need to do is what we've been doing. We did and we took the lead."
Added McQuarley: "We sat down relaxed and knew that although we had done good, we were still losing. So that was plenty to motivate us to come back out here and win."
And the Wildcats took advantage. Taking just five plays, Meridian went up 24-21 on McQuarley's first touchdown run less than two minutes into the third and four minutes later, McQuarley pushed the Wildcats lead to 31-21 when he again found the end zone.
Firmly in control — the Wildcats' defense stiffened after a long Brandon drive, holding inside the 10 and the Bulldogs' missed another field goal, this one from 25 yards — Meridian made things interesting again. Pressured on a third-and-8, Smith's throw sailed and Brandon's Chris Harper picked it off at the 40 and raced to the end zone to make it 31-28.
"We had control of the game until we make a mistake," Weems said. "J was trying to make a play, and he'll learn from that, and other than that I thought he managed the game well and had an excellent game. But that mistake gave them a surge because they were back on their heels, and without it I'm not so sure they ever get back in it.
"But we answered. We took it right back down the field and answered."
Answer they did. The Wildcats got the ball right back and again marched down the field. After runs on four out of five plays, Smith found a wide-open Corey Davis on a play-action pass from 27 yards out and the lead grew back to 10.
"We knew we couldn't let up because that's what happened with Oak Grove," McQuarley added. "We weren't going to let up."
Two plays later, Brandon closed again as Devin Wilson rumbled 46 yards to make it 38-35. And there the score stood as Meridian turned it over on downs at the Brandon 16 with 1:15 remaining. And while the Bulldogs drove — using a Meridian penalty and a 25-yard pass from Minshew to Colby Williams — into MHS territory, they couldn't finish. An intentional grounding penalty pushed them back near midfield and Minshew's last-ditch pass was knocked away.
Meridian High was dead.
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