Many times in sports the numbers don’t lie, but when looking at the stat line from Upson-Lee’s 40-28 defeat against Riverdale on Friday night, the numbers look as if the Knights dominated Riverdale in the contest.
According to UL team statistician Jim Fowler, Riverdale only had six first downs, had 17 penalties for 142 yards, lost 73 yards of rushing, totaled only 21 rushing yards, converted one third down in 10 attempts, converted zero fourth downs in four attempts, gave UL five first downs due to penalties, ran only 44 plays compared to 74 by Upson-Lee, and had 11 of their 26 rushing plays result in lost yardage. With that said, the Raiders ended the game ahead where it counts, on the scoreboard.
“I really felt like special teams let us down for the first time this season,” said UL head coach Tommy Watson. “You have to play good in all three phases of the game, and we just did not do that. We get a punt blocked in the end zone and allowed a kick off return for a touchdown. That’s the kinds of things that get teams beat. I feel like we played well defensively up front. We held them to very few rushing yards, but they hurt us with the pass. When you have 6’4” and 6’5” guys at wide receiver being covered by someone who is 5’8”, it gets tough. They were just able to go up over us and get those balls. I wish we had taller kids that could play against those big receivers. If we did, I’d definitely have them out there. When you have guys that are that tall and athletic, you can hurt a lot of high school football teams with the passing game.”
Upson-Lee took the first lead in the game after the Knights defense forced a fumble early in the first quarter. Upson-Lee senior Sontrell Perry scored on a 39-yard run with 8:21 still remaining in the first quarter, and after Tyler Stewart added the PAT, UL was quickly out to a 7-0 lead.
The Knights defense caused havoc for the Raiders for much of the first half. Upson-Lee’s David Marshall and Chris Duncan each found their way into the Raiders backfield, many times getting a tackle for a loss. Senior linebacker Markel Manuel also played well, stuffing the run and just missing an interception over the middle of the field early in the game.
In the second quarter the Knights were looking to add to their lead, but freshman quarterback Kalen Puckett was stripped of the ball on the Raiders’ 14-yard line. Riverdale’s Doyland Williams scooped up the fumble and rumbled 86 yards for a touchdown. The Raiders’ PAT was good, and with 11:02 left in the first half, the score was tied 7-7.
The Knights defense continued to play well, and the UL offense had some success moving the ball on the ground and through the air. Puckett ended up with 165 yards passing in the game, and UL senior Sontrell Perry rushed for 140 yards and two scores. However, it was the big plays on defense and special teams for the Raiders which ultimately made the difference. The Raiders scored three touchdowns in the game in which their offense wasn’t even on the field.
With the game tied 7-7, Upson-Lee’s Tyler Stewart was forced to punt out of the end zone. The snap was high and the Raiders rushed through the Knights line of scrimmage and blocked Stewart’s punt. Tykeem Bethea pounced on the ball in the end zone, giving the Raiders a 13-7 lead. Riverdale’s PAT kick hit the upright, and the Knights trailed 13-7.
After a nice kick return from senior Thomas Dawson, Upson-Lee was in good field position as they looked for a score before halftime. The Knights were able to find a little balance offensively on the drive with solid runs from Perry and a couple of nice catches from junior Keanan “K.J.” Hutchins. With just 55 seconds left before halftime, Perry capped off a 10-play, 57- yard drive with a five-yard touchdown run. Stewart’s PAT was good, and the Knights headed to the locker room with a 14-13 lead.
After KeOndra Ausbrook was named the 2013 Upson-Lee Homecoming Queen during halftime, the Knights offense took to the field once again. Taking the kickoff to start the second half, Upson-Lee mounted an 11-play, 73-yard drive, capped off by an amazing 36-yard touchdown catch by sophomore O’Qualon Harris. The speedy receiver got behind the Raiders defense and Puckett found him in the corner of the end zone. Harris tipped the ball to himself, catching the pass and getting his feet inbounds for the score. Stewart’s PAT was good, and with 8:03 left in the third quarter, the Knights led the Raiders 21-13.
Unfortunately for UL, it seemed every time something good happened for the Knights, it was immediately followed by a big play from the Raiders.
After the great touchdown catch by Harris, Riverdale’s Trey Sanders returned the ensuing kickoff 79 yards for a touchdown. Sanders broke two tackles near the 35-yard line, hitting the sidelines and out running the Knights to the end zone. The Raiders went for a two-point conversion, but the pass fell incomplete, as the Knights still held a slim 21-19 lead.
After the Knights were forced to punt, the Raiders struck again and struck quickly. Riverdale scored three more touchdowns in the second half, with their longest scoring drive coming in just four plays. Trailing 21-19, it was Sanders once again who reached pay dirt for the Raiders. Sanders caught a screen pass out in the flats, and scooted 80 yards for a touchdown. The Raider PAT was good, and with 5:39 left in the third quarter, the Raiders held a 26-21 lead after the PAT.
On the next possession, UL turned the ball over by throwing an interception. The Raiders took over their own 18 yard line, and just two plays later, 6’4” Rashad Canty caught a fade pass for a 29-yard touchdown. The Raiders PAT was good, and all of a sudden Riverdale led by a 33-21 score.
In the fourth quarter the Raiders added another score on a touchdown pass. This time it was the 6’5” Gerrad Gober who leaped over the Knights secondary defenders, catching a 24-yard pass in the end zone. The PAT was good, and UL trailed by a 40-21 score.
The Knights scored once more on a play that isn’t seen very much. Puckett found Hutchins on a long pass over the middle. Hutchins made a defender miss and as he was being brought down he fumbled the football. However, Upson-Lee’s Thomas Dawson picked up the fumble and scored. After Stewart’s PAT, UL trailed 40-28.
The Knights were unable to score in the last nine minutes of the game, as Riverdale held on for the 40-28 lead.
“If you can take away the scores we gave up on a fumble and special teams, we get a 28-20 victory,” said Watson. “Unfortunately, we can’t do that. I was pleased with the way we played defensively. I feel like if you look at the stats we dominated them in a lot of phases of the game, but the game is won and lost on the field, not on paper. We just didn’t have an answer for their big receivers, as a lot of teams don’t have answers for receivers that are that big and fast. I knew that their young quarterback would be better this week. He has improved every week since his first game against Griffin three weeks ago. He finally made some plays in the second half and got the ball to his weapons on the perimeter.”
The Knights were looking to set up their game with Griffin next week for a possible sub-region championship and the No.1 seed for the week 10 crossover game. With the defeat on Friday night, Upson-Lee could still win the sub-region championship, but they would need to beat Griffin next week, Jonesboro the following week, and have Jonesboro beat Riverdale the next week. As for the No. 2 seed, the Knights seem to be out for that position. If UL were to beat Griffin and Jonesboro and Riverdale beats Jonesboro, then UL, Griffin, and Riverdale would be tied with just 1 loss in sub-region play. Griffin would get the No. 1 seed since they won both of their crossover games. Neither Riverdale nor Upson-Lee won a crossover game, but because Riverdale beat UL head to head, they would get the No. 2 seed. If Upson-Lee loses to the No. 3 state ranked Bears next week, the best they could finish would be the No. 3 seed with a victory over Jonesboro in week 9 of the season. If the Knights fail to win either of the next two games, they will be the No. 4 seed in the sub-region and will face the winner of the Locust Grove vs. Stockbridge game on the road in week 10.
The Knights will travel to Griffin Friday night, looking to pull off a huge upset over the No. 3 state ranked Bears. A victory by the Knights, and their hopes of a sub-region Championship are still alive.