MURRAY- In another classic high school football game that came down to the last play, the Murray Tigers defeated the Caldwell County Tigers 35-28 in the first round of the Class 2A playoffs Friday night at Ty Holland Stadium.
On 4th-and-8 with less than 10 seconds in the game, Caldwell senior quarterback Russ Beshear took the snap and from the Murray 44-yard line, and in a scene reminiscent of their game last month, dropped back and scrambled for a desperation Hail Mary to try to force the game into overtime. Murray High’s junior lineman Devin Lee wasn’t going to let him heave the ball toward the end zone, however and chased him down, as he had been doing all night long. Lee sacked Beshear for the second time. With this takedown being the game-ender, it propelled Murray into the second round of the postseason and forced a rematch with longtime nemesis Mayfield Cardinals.
“I’m just really proud of our guys,” said Murray head coach Keith Hodge. “We just battled and battled and battled and you have to at playoff time. You have to make big plays.”
And the big plays were on all over the field on both sides of the ball for the Tigers, especially for senior running back Charvelle McCallister who broke off runs of 51 and 74 yards in the third quarter within a minute of each other to lead the rushing attack. McCallister finished with 180 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. Senior defensive back Dijon Miles might have had the biggest play on the night, and of the season thus far, when he intercepted a pass on a Caldwell fake punt late in the fourth quarter and ran it all the way back to the end zone to give Murray the lead 35-14 and effectively seal the victory.
The game started slow for the hometown Tigers, as Caldwell scored first after capitalizing on a McCallister fumble and taking a 7-0 leading, then scoring again at 9:57 in the second quarter. Murray finally broke through on the scoreboard with eight minutes to go until halftime, on a two yard run by senior running back Brendan Dahncke, closing the gap to 14-7. Momentum then noticeably seemed to deflect the Tigers’ way towards the end of the half as junior quarterback Rowdy Sokolowski threw a pass that was tipped into the arms of senior wide receiver Daniel Klukan who happened to be in the right place at the right time to end up with a 47-yard touchdown reception into the end zone to tie the score at 14 with 0:40 left in the half. If that wasn’t exciting enough for socially distanced yet exceptionally loud and energizing home crowd, freshman defensive back Zavion Carman thwarted Caldwell’s chance to score with an interception as time expired, coming close to returning it for a score. The crowd and team were fired up as the Tigers headed to the locker room.
After the half, the opposing offenses delivered 21 points between them in a one-minute and two-second span. The two runs by McCallister bookended an impressive 51-yard catch-and-run by Caldwell senior tight end Tare VanHooser, who troubled the Tigers with 148 receiving yards and three catches for scores in the game.
Murray took a 28-21 lead into the fourth quarter and seemed to put the game away with Miles’ interception and score, leading 35-21 with 4:47 to go. Caldwell County then took a long 89-yard drive down the field and cut the Murray lead to 35-28 on a five-yard touchdown pass from Beshear to VanHooser, but ate up a valuable 3:24 of the remaining time on the clock.
A first down was all that Murray needed to put the game away, but couldn’t manage to get one as Caldwell’s defense forced a three-and-out and got the ball back after a touchback on a booming Sokolowski punt.
With just under a minute to go in the game, it seemed to be setting up eerily familiar to the finish of the teams’ meeting earlier in the season, as Caldwell moved the ball to the Murray 44-yard line with 0:12 to go on the clock. There would be no bailout by the officials this time for the visitors, as Beshear was sacked by Lee to end the game.
Sokolowski was very efficient managing the offense for the Tigers, and also made a lead-saving tackle on defense in the fourth quarter. He threw for 98 yards on 7/11 passing and the one touchdown strike to Klukan. He contributed 42 yards on the ground, combined with Dahncke’s 58 yards, to bring the Tiger’s rushing attack total to 288 yards on the evening. Murray outgained the visitors 386 to 357 in total offense.
Two areas of concern on the night should have the coaching staff’s attention heading into next week’s second-round showdown with the Cardinals this week in practice. One has been a backbreaker for them all season long - penalties. The Tigers, time-and-time again, found themselves as their own worst enemy and let Caldwell hang around. They finished with 13 yellow flags for a whopping 135 yards backwards. A new, hopefully isolated, problem for the Tigers was third-down conversion on offense. Murray was 0/8 on third-downs, which would all but end the season with a similar performance next week. Defensive coordinator Clayton Morris also was concerned with tackling and intends to focus on that in practice leading up to the Cardinal showdown.
“At times I felt like our tackling was bad,” said Morris. “We’ve got to improve on that because that's one thing Mayfield prides itself on is running the football hard, keeping those legs churning and they'll grind you out doing it. We know that and our tackling in the box has got to be on point we have to be aligned before Mayfield starts their cadence.”
Cadence will definitely be a key in many ways next week. Murray has to stay in a rhythm of not turning the ball over and keeping the flags in the officials’ pockets. Sokolowski has to manage the game like he can and has done in their victories this season. When he doesn’t force throws and uses his legs wisely, Murray’s offense can be hard to contain. McCallister has to return to early season form, as he did tonight. Mayfield’s cadence has to be off, because the hometown Cardinals will be playing in their first game in almost a month, with their last game being a win over Madisonville on October 30.
“We’re gonna focus on us, focus on what we do and and get better at what we do and not worry,” said Hodge. “We've got to stop thinking about who we're playing and start thinking about the things that can make us win football games, and lineup and play. We played them really well over here last time, but you can't be satisfied with that. We’ve got to rock and roll. We’ve got to line up and play and do what we do.”
The game between the neighboring, rival Tigers and Cardinals went down to the last play, as well, in Mayfield’s narrow 21-20 overtime escape from Ty Holland the week before that, so don’t rule out another epic showdown, this time at War Memorial Stadium.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27.
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