Just as it had twice before during the regular season, MacArthur fell behind two scores in the first half of Friday night’s playoff game against Guthrie.
And just as it had twice before, Brett Manning’s team showed fortitude and perseverance in coming back, even after the deficit reached 17 points in the 3rd quarter.
But unlike in their games against Eisenhower and Ardmore, MacArthur’s defense made too many mistakes and the offense couldn’t overcome penalties and turnovers, as a fumble on a high snap on a potential game-winning drive was recovered by Guthrie with 2:25 left in the game to give the Blue Jays a 42-39 win and end the Highlanders’ season in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs Friday night at Cameron Stadium.
After a season that had been wrought with uncertainty and adversity, MacArthur emerged from its district as the 2nd seed and hosted a playoff game for the first time in four years. And although the end result was less than ideal, Manning was still proud of his players for displaying the character he preached all year.
“Really resilient through all the hoops we’ve had to jump through and the fact they’ve done it all in order to play,” Manning said on how he’ll remember the 2020 team. “Just so many mistakes first half and third quarter, especially, that we couldn’t overcome.”
The game got off to a horrendous start for the Highlanders as Guthrie’s Jaylen Chelf returned the opening kickoff to the house for a touchdown a mere 10 seconds into the game.
Bad turned to worse as Mac went 3-and-out, and on the Blue Jays’ next possession, freshman quarterback Hayden Calvert — facing 3rd and 20 after a sack by Vauhgn Poppe and Talon Phillips — threw a bomb that glided over the outstretched arms of MacArthur cornerback Montez Edwards and into the arms of receiver Kaiden Ballard-Stevenson, who galloped into the end zone for the 47-yard score that put the visitors up 14-0 with 8:14 still showing on the first-quarter clock.
MacArthur was able to keep in the game with two Nasir Kemper touchdown runs in the first half. And as the defense forced back-to-back 3-and-outs by Guthrie, it appeared Mac could regain some momentum. However, those ensuing Mac drives resulted in no points and a Josh Rains touchdown run from 7 yards out with 37 seconds left in the 2nd quarter gave Guthrie a 28-12 halftime lead.
But Mac opened the second half by sending two messages: they would not go away and their offense did not always have to be the usual power-run-and-short-pass game plan the Highlanders had relied on most of the season. The downfield passing game became a bonafide weapon, as Guthrie simply had no answer for Montez Edwards from his wide receiver spot. Despite standing just 5’9, Edwards played much taller, catching two lob passes for touchdowns in the second half. Edwards finished the game with 9 catches for 129 yards. Quarterback Gage Graham enjoyed the best game of his career, completing 14 of 20 passes for 201 yards.
“We just felt like we had opportunities with the way they play their coverage,” Manning said. “We knew we were going to be one-on-one and felt like we had some mismatches with some of our athletes against theirs. I thought Gage did a really good job, Montez obviously had a really good game too.”
But Mac still went back to its bread and butter of running the ball, and Kemper’s 3rd touchdown cut the Guthrie lead to 10 early in the 4th. And after forcing a Guthrie punt that was downed at the Mac 13, Kemper did just as he had all season, and delivered when his team needed, taking the first play of the next series 87 yards for the score that made it a 42-39 game and gave MacArthur fans hope.
But in the end, it was the missed opportunities — in all three phases — that did Mac in. Despite forcing five Guthrie punts, Mac only produced 7 points (Kemper’s long TD) from the possessions that followed those punts.
On defense, MacArthur had even more chances to get the Guthrie offense off the field. But three of the Blue Jays’ touchdowns were scored on 3rd downs (2 on 3rd-and-long), while Rains’ touchdown run just before half came immediately after the Highlanders — with Guthrie facing a 4th-and-4 — jumped offside, giving the Blue Jays new life. And while the secondary played good coverage through much of the game, busted coverages were exploited by the Guthrie offense for big plays.
And on special teams, MacArthur had two extra-point attempts and two 2-point conversion attempts fail. Although the two teams each scored 6 touchdowns, Mac still fell 3 points short.
It marked an end to MacArthur’s season, as well as many careers. While some players — like Kemper — will get to go play college ball, that is not the case for all. And while he still harbors hope of playing at the next level, senior linebacker Chris Noble was hit by a wave of emotion following his final high school game, taking a deep breath before the words could come out of his mouth.
“It sucks,” he said. “I just hope I can go to college and prove something else.”