MURRAY — The Kentucky High School Athletic Association moved forward with the high school football playoffs after delaying the start for a week, and now the Murray High Tigers football team will face off against the Caldwell County Tigers in a rematch of their classic 41-34 overtime thriller from back in October in the first round of the Class 2A playoffs.
On a goal line stand in overtime, the Murray (5-3, 1-1) defense stopped hometown Caldwell (3-3, 1-2) on 4th-and-half-a-yard inside the one-yard line from getting into the endzone to potentially force a second overtime period. The Tigers escaped Princeton with the victory after a controversial finish in regulation that saw Caldwell trailing by 34-31 with only a few seconds left and at the Murray 35-yardline. Caldwell was set to try an impossibly long, by high school standards, 45-yard field goal attempt with 0:05 seconds left on the clock. After Murray Coach Keith Hodge called a timeout to ice the kicker, Caldwell came back on the field lined up for a Hail Mary pass attempt, yet another play with a low chance of success. Two penalties were called on Murray on the play, including roughing the passer, and Caldwell was gifted close enough field position where their kicker put the ball through the uprights with a game-tying field goal as time expired.
In overtime, Murray junior quarterback Rowdy Sokolowski ran for two yards on third-and-two to score first for the Tigers. Caldwell then ran three consecutive running plays to set up the final and decisive play in which the Tiger defense kept the Caldwell running back from getting around the edge and into the endzone, ending the game and putting a stamp on the classic victory.
The Tigers had 353 yards of total offense, over 200 of which came on the ground, with Sokolowski compiling 118 and three rushing touchdowns, and senior runningback Brendan Dahncke contributing 89 more and a score. Sokolowski had one of his best performances of the season under center as he threw for 146 yards on 7/12 passing and two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was responsible for five total scores on the night. Junior linebacker Andrew Orr led the defense with six solo tackles and threw in an offensive 50-yard touchdown catch, as well. Freshman Zavion Carman also caught his first touchdown pass as a Tiger, hauling in a 57-yarder from Sokolowski in the 3rd quarter.
Coming into the game, Murray’s offense is averaging just under 30 points per game at 29.3 PPG with 263.5 yards of total offense per game and limiting their opponents to 18.1 PPG and 207.5 total offense. The Tigers’ bread and butter has been on the ground, averaging 190.3 YPG with the total split pretty evenly between Sokolowski, Dahncke and senior runningback Charvelle McCallister with 535, 498 and 486 yards apiece, respectively. Sokolowski has been the only Tiger to throw a pass, and is 48/95 on the year with 8 touchdown passes. McCallister and Sokolowski are tied for the team lead in points scored at 62, but with McCallister being quarantined and missing part of the season, he leads with 10.3 PPG.
Andrew Orr is the leading tackler on the defense with 46 solo tackles and senior lineman Sebastian Lawrence coming in just behind him with 40 and senior linebacker Ashkahn Nabavi with 38. McCallister leads the team in interceptions with three.
Caldwell’s rushing attack is paltry at best, with their leading rusher only accumulating 180 yards on the season, but the real threat will come through their air attack, led by quarterback Russ Beshear. The senior is 70/107 for an efficient 65 percent completion rate with 11 touchdowns with only four interceptions on the year. In the first matchup, Beshear lit the Tigers up for 256 yards on 15/20 passing and three touchdowns. Murray will have to do a better job forcing him into bad throws and not let him air it out again if they want to avoid another barnburner.
Two issues have plagued Murray over the season, turnovers and penalties. The Tigers are averaging a hefty 73.7 yards per game in penalties and have turned the ball over 19 times, for 2.3 giveaways a game. That must improve if they want a deep run in the postseason. Against Caldwell in the first matchup, they were able to not turn the ball over, but did manage 100 penalty yards, including the monster one at the end of regulation. A turnover might have been the difference in a bus ride home with a loss instead.
“There’s several things that are crucial at playoff time,” said Murray head coach Keith Hodge. “We have to do better with field position. A short field usually equals points. That starts with special teams coverage, plus doing a better job sustaining drives on offense. We had too many three-and-outs last time and we have to keep their offense off the field. Trusting what we’ve done in practice the past two weeks will be huge.”
Healthwise, Hodge said the team is doing well and they are in a great place heading into the playoffs.
“It’s going to change every day, but I think the KHSAA wants to get the playoffs in,” said Hodge when asked his thoughts about the playoffs still going forward. “There will be teams that can’t compete because of being quarantined. It’s just something we are all facing as we have since we got started. We definitely can’t take all this for granted because any practice or game could be our last.”
The hometown team should be confident coming into the game because they beat their opponent once before but have to realistically expect the game to be tough. There must be an improvement execution, especially keeping the yellow laundry off the field and, at most, double-digit penalty yards. The defensive backs have to defend the long ball better and Murray’s defensive front has to get more pressure on Beshear. They most definitely have to play the opponent in front of them and not take the game for granted considering the earlier victory, and not get caught looking ahead to a revenge matchup against rival Mayfield in the second round. The Tigers have to be desperate for another shot at the Cardinals but must stay focused on Caldwell first.
As has been the theme all this season, make sure you’re writing out these playoff plans and matchups in pencil, because games have changed, opponents/venues been dropped altogether, rescheduled, then dropped and then rescheduled again. Anything goes during a pandemic playoff scenario. As of print time, the game will be at Ty Holland Stadium on Friday at 7 p.m. The winner has Mayfield looming in the second round scheduled for Friday, Nov. 27.