Coming into last Thursday-night’s BlueCross Bowl contest against familiar foe Ensworth, the MUS varsity football team had several objectives that it knew it would have to accomplish to bring the trophy home to Memphis. First, they would have to slow down two-time Mr. Football winner Corn Elder, who had been averaging just under 210 rushing years against MUS and had tallied 9 touchdowns in three games. They must also win the turnover battle against the Tigers, and they must convert possessions into touchdowns, not settling for field goals. Unfortunately, though the Owls played hard and well, they did not adequately accomplish those objectives, and Ensworth prevailed, claiming their third consecutive Division II-AA state title with a 31-14 victory in Cookeville at Tennessee Tech University.
MUS (10-3) got off to a great start in the school’s eighth championship-game appearance. After the teams had exchanged punts on initial possessions, the Owls took over at the Tiger 43-yard line following a 17-yard Matt Bolton punt return. MUS found success running the ball, and on the eighth play of the drive, Shane Tucker flew over the goalline on 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line for the touchdown. Gary Wunderlich missed the extra point, but the Owls grabbed the early 6-0 lead with 5:01 left in the first quarter.
However, Ensworth (13-0) would score the next 17 points to take control. First, on the ensuing drive, Elder began to establish himself as he found holes created by an offensive line that averages over 280 pounds. Facing 1st-and-goal at the MUS 3-yard line, Elder swept into the endzone for the touchdown to complete the 10-play, 80-yard drive that amassed 4:07. Jake Estes’ PAT gave the Tigers the 7-6 lead with 54 seconds left in the first quarter.
After Gary Wunderlich’s 53-yard field-goal attempt hit the crossbar and came up just short on the Owls’ next possession, Ensworth took advantage as Elder again found running room. Carrying the ball on seven of nine plays, the 5’10’’, 165-pound back got the Tigers close. However, Peyton Klawinski’s stop on 3rd down forced a field-goal attempt, and Estes connected from 25-yards out, increasing the lead to 10-6 with 6:24 left in the half.
The Tigers scored added a second touchdown on their next possession as Elder scored from 50 yards out to complete a 6-play, 86-yard drive, giving them a 17-6 lead with 2:37 left in the half.
But the Owls did not quit as they sought to get back into the game before the half. Starting at their own 35-yard line, MUS used the clock effectively and progressed methodically down the field. The two big plays on the drive were a defensive pass-interference call and a 17-yard catch from Jordan Rodgers to Devin Perry to get close. But with just 6 seconds left in the half, Owl coaches decided to try just one more play before a field-goal attempt. From the EHS 16-yard line, Rodgers threw a back-shoulder pass to Will Whitley, who hauled in the reception for the touchdown with just one second left in the half. MUS went for two, and Rodgers found Tucker, who leapt into the endzone for the conversion to bring the halftime score to 17-14. With some momentum, the Owls felt good about where they were going into the break.
But just as they had done in the previous contests with MUS, Ensworth began the second half by making big plays to regain control. Just five plays into the half, Elder broke free again and raced 40 yards for the touchdown to increase the lead to 24-14 just 2 minutes into the third quarter.
And the Ensworth defense also began to stiffen. They allowed only 39 yards to the Owls in the third quarter as they stopped the MUS running game and put an immense amount of pressure on Rodgers. Fortunately, the MUS defense also slowed the Tigers some, keeping the score at 24-14 going into the fourth quarter.
But the Ensworth ground game was just too much to allow MUS back into the game. They controlled the clock in the second half and allowed very few possessions to the Owls. The last chance for MUS came midway through the fourth quarter as they took over at the Ensworth 20-yard line. After an initial first down, Rodgers threw three consecutive incompletions as he was under duress. Facing a 4th-and-10, MUS tried a fake punt, but Blake Bennett’s pass fell incomplete, giving Ensworth the ball at the Owl 30-yard line.
They added one final touchdown on their next drive as Elder rushed 6 straight plays to get to the MUS 5-yard line, and then from there, D’Andre Ferby scored to increase the lead to 17 at 31-14, the eventual final score.
For the game, Elder, the offensive Most Valuable Player, rushed 33 times for 222 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Owls’ Mr. Football Finalist, Jordan Rodgers, also played well, completing 20-37 passes for 152 yards and one touchdown. But Ensworth did a nice job pressuring Rodgers and preventing any deep passes that the Owls often look to. MUS was led by defensive Most Valuable Player , Matt Bolton, who, along with his teammates, played hard throughout. However, Ensworth was just too much on this night.