MURRAY — Tonight, the Murray High Tigers and Mayfield Cardinals will face each other again for their almost-annual playoff rivalry as they meet in the second round of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Class 2A Playoffs.
The Tigers (8-2) look to extend their two-game winning streak against the Cardinals (10-1) after years of futility were finally put behind them last season in a classic, triple-overtime 28-21 thriller at War Memorial Stadium in Mayfield.
The Cardinals will be hungry and ready for some payback as last season’s playoff matchup ended their season and hopes for an 11th state championship. This year’s regular-season 25-21 loss to the Tigers ended their hopes for an unbeaten regular season, as it was the only blemish in the win/loss column.
For Murray High to win this time, Head Coach Darren Bowling and his Tigers will have to be prepared for Mayfield’s counterpunch after Murray High was able to control the last meeting on the ground and efficiently manage the time-of-possession in their favor again. In the regular season battle, Murray High held the ball for almost 33 minutes of game clock and was able to keep Mayfield high-powered offense off the field and limited to only 15 minutes and 42 plays.
Look for Mayfield to buckle down on the defensive side of the ball tonight to try to limit Murray High’s grind-it-out option attack that has flustered defenses all year long, trying to guess who to tackle. Specifically, the Cardinals will have to keep Murray High from capitalizing on fourth down, as the Tigers were 5-of-6 on fourth-down conversions last time.
“We need to be able to get our defense off the field on third down and not turn the ball over,” said the veteran Mayfield’s Joe Morris, now in his 23rd year as head coach. Morris owns a spectacular 23-2 record overall in the series, which includes 5-1 in the postseason.
“Murray does a great job of running their offense. We must be very disciplined and take care of our assignments. We don’t see that type of offense and it’s hard to simulate in practice,” he said.
Murray High’s defense will have to shine as they did back in October at War Memorial for them to keep their season alive. They held Mayfield to only 21 points, 16 points below their average and their season-lowest point total, thanks to keeping the Cardinals’ offense off the field and timely fourth-down stops.
That offense is led by running back and recent Murray State football commit Kylan Galbreath. The senior has amassed an impressive 1,254 yards on the ground this season, good for 38th in the state at 114 YPG. He’s also punched the ball into the end zone 20 times, seventh in the Bluegrass.
The Tigers were also able to contain Mayfield sophomore quarterback Zane Cartwright by pressuring most of the night and limited him to only 113 yards through the air, well below his average of 165.7 YPG. Over the course of the season, Cartwright has led the Mayfield offensive attack by hitting 68% of his passes with an 18/1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. If the Cardinal offensive line is able to protect Cartwright better this time, they might be able to utilize his arm and light up the scoreboard more, which would make it very difficult for Murray to play catchup with their offensive style.
Senior linebacker Nathan Watkins has led the Cardinal defense that allows 13.5 PPG, 16th overall in Kentucky. His 63 tackles leads the team. Senior lineman Gabe Spalding leads the defensive front with 48 tackles and four sacks. However, Murray High quarterback Rowdy Sokolowski can’t sleep on Cardinal sophomore linebacker Jutarious Starks either, as he is leading the Cardinals in sacks with an impressive 7.5.
The Tigers won’t be able to surprise the Cardinals Friday night as Morris and his players will know what to expect this time after their first look at Bowling’s offense. The team that brings the best wrinkle will probably decide who moves on. Murray High will have to play almost flawlessly again and know that the Cardinals will be ready for the rematch.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 tonight at War Memorial.