With St. Benedict, the state’s largest co-ed Roman Catholic high school, trailing Memphis University School 10-0 at halftime, SBA officials smiled when they said that Pope Francis’ touchdown in the United States in September may have provided divine intervention.
The Eagles have never beaten MUS in seven previous attempts and the 10-point deficit was the closest in memory.
However with Jalen Love setting the single-game school record of 13 receptions, that went for 172 yards and one touchdown, Maurice Hampton returning the second-half kickoff 60 yards that set up a Bradley Foley 7-yard touchdown run and a defense that held the Eagles to a negative 10 yards rushing, the Owls snuffed hopes 31-0 in a Division 2-AA West game at SBA on Friday.
“We came out confident in what we can do and executed,” said MUS quarterback Steven Regis, who completed 20 of 29 passes for 239 yards, including the 58-yard touchdown pass to Love in the third quarter. “We were coming together as a team. Coach (Bobby) Alston had a good speech at halftime. He told us to get it in gear and start making plays. We came out and got stuff done.”
A junior, Love got stuff done. His 7-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter gave the Owls (5-2, 1-0) their fourth touchdown and his record-setter catch came late in the third quarter. He helped lead the Owls, ranked sixth by The Commercial Appeal among Shelby-Metro schools, to 406 yards total offense.
“He was definitely the spark plug for our offense Friday night, When a guy is playing that well, you have to get the ball in his hands as often as possible,” said Regis, a junior.
Regis also found Josh Gray for 26 yards on two receptions and Thomas Pickens, a University of Memphis commit, twice for 24 yards. Pickens scored the Owls’ first touchdown on a 1-yard run in the second quarter.
The Eagles (2-4, 0-1) turned to their passing attack when yardage on the ground was not found. Sophomore quarterback Jack Samsel, the son of head coach Scott Samsel, completed 23 of 41 passes for 134 yards. John Aeschliman led SBA receivers with 43 yards on seven receptions. They got eight of their nine first downs passing and averaged 5.8 yards per completion.
Jack Samsel said it was reading the defense that led to the yardage. “I am just reading the defense and going with what we are coached to do at practice. No one play is designed for one player. You get the ball to where it needs to be. We have a lot of success passing. We need to get better running the ball. I think we are averaging nine yards per catch and running the ball averaging about one yard. We need to balance where we can mix the run and the pass. It is hard to beat a team when all you have got is the pass. I am not saying we can’t beat a team with all passing. Of course they had a good defense. They know how to cover their linebackers. They were just well trained on the defensive side of the ball.”
Led by Jalen Friendly, who had 5 tackles, 4.5 each by Jack Dickinson and Pickens, 4 by Evan Smith, the Owls also got 15 yards in sacks. Dickinson had a sack of nine yards and Joe Carter a sack of six.
The Owls’ three-stack defense allowed the Eagles as close as the 28-yard line. In the third quarter, Samsel completed a 19-yard pass to Hakeem Vance, the team’s longest of the game, before Vance fumbled. Smith forced the fumble and Dickinson recovered.
“I felt like our defense came to play tonight. We made a lot of adjustments. We have been giving up a lot of points. We did a great job shutting them out tonight,” said Smith, a linebacker. “We watched a lot of film this week. Coach was real hard on us to know our assignments and we did and this is why we are able to hold them to zero.
“Their quarterback can throw the ball. They are good in the deep ball. We did a good job of being all over them and stopped them from doing what they were wanting to do. We played really well as a team. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Said Alston, the Owls head coach since 1998, “I thought our defense played really good the whole night. We didn’t give up any big plays offensively. We didn’t have a bunch of missed assignments. We kind of played our game.”
SBA’s defense had big plays. In the first quarter the Eagles had a goal-line stand by stopping MUS on their 2-yard line with 2:24 left. The Owls had driven 68 yards before Pickens was stopped by the Eagles’ Ben O’Bryan.
A 31-yard run by Foley to the SBA 25, a 9-yard run by Ryan Pahlow and then two straight 1-yard gains by Pickens got the Owls to the 2.
“That goal-line stand was big. It was courageous of our defense standing there tough. We should have had a second one but we had a guy get out of position. Overall, I thought our guys fought harder tonight than in previous games,” said Scott Samsel, in his first season as SBA head coach. “We are short-handed we need players.”
MUS had taken a 7-0 lead when Pickens scored with 4:03 left in the second quarter. A 17-yard run by Foley fueled the drive that started on the SBA 34-yard line. The Eagles, facing fourth and 17, tried a fake punt. Samsel’s pass to Aeschliman was incomplete.
It took the Owls six plays to score. Matthew Davidoff kicked the extra point for the 7-0 lead.
“It was a favorable situation to try it,” said Scott Samsel. “We had the receiver open and overthrew him a little bit.”
A 34-yard field goal by Davidoff with 14 seconds left in the second quarter capped a 67-yard drive.
Passes from Regis to Love for 13, 11 and 26 yards got the Owls to the SBA 7-yard line. Regis also had hit Pickens for 11 yards.
The Eagles, who host Manassas at 7 p.m. this Friday, were still in the game at halftime.
“I thought we were a couple of plays away from it being a totally different score at halftime if you make those plays,” said Scott Samsel.
Jack Samsel said, “We went in at halftime thinking if a few of those plays went differently, it could be a whole different story. It could be 10-0 us. Of course that didn’t happen. We had to keep our momentum but it seemed after that kick return and Mike (Culhane) got hurt, it took momentum out of everybody and everybody went down hill after that.”
Taking the second half kickoff, Hampton raced to the SBA 30-yard line. Regis then completed a 14-yard pass to Love. A face mask penalty on SBA, one of 10 penalties for 89 yards total, got the Owls to the 8-yard line. Foley then scored from the 7-yard line. Davidoff kicked it to 17-0 with 10:38 left.
“It is a killer,” said Scott Samsel of the kickoff return. “It slings the whole field position-deal their way.”
The kickoff return loosened up the Owls said Alston. “We started playing a little bit better. Offensively we are still kind of out of sync a little bit. We made enough plays to make it work. The last couple of games we haven’t been sharp like we were most of the early part.”
Alston was pleased with the play of Love and Foley. “He (Foley) ran the ball hard. He got some rhythm running the ball.”
The game temporarily stopped with 9:33 left in the third quarter. Culhane, a SBA senior wide receiver and defensive back, sustained a neck injury while tackling. He lay motionless on the SBA 47-yard line. SBA players huddled in prayer. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital where he underwent an MRI. He was able to move arms and legs said Scott Samsel and was going to be “OK.”
“He is one of our best friends. We is a real nice kid,” said Jack Samsel, who transferred to St. Benedict from MUS when his father got the coaching job in January. Samsel had been quarterback of the JV and freshman teams last year.
“It was different playing against your old teammates but once you get down to it, it is us versus them. You can’t think about that kind of stuff. It is cool playing your friends but when it gets down to the bottom line, you want to win. That is the main thing with me.”
After play resumed following the injury, the Owls scored on the 58-yard touchdown pass from Regis to Love with 9:21 left for a 24-0 lead.
With a 12-yard pass from Samsel to Brennan Ryan and two passes to Asechliman for 11 yards and a Samsel rush that got to the MUS 39, the Eagles were flagged for a holding penalty.
The Owls were threatening again with 10:53 left in the fourth quarter when Jones intercepted Regis in the SBA end zone.
Jones’ interception came after two unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties on SBA near the end of the third quarter.
“You can’t overcome penalties. That is 60-yards worth of penalties that we couldn’t afford to give anybody. We are going to have to do a better job of keeping our composure,” said Scott Samsel. “With that in mind, I think the officials let some things escalate that they might could do a better job with as well. There were some times they might be a little too sensitive about things when you are just trying to talk with them.”
The Eagles were unable to move the ball and Hampton intercepted Samsel on the 35-yard line and returned it to the 1-yard line. An unsportmanslike conduct penalty on the Owls, who had eight penalties for 87 yards, moved them to the 16-yard line. Love scored from the 7-yard line for a 30-0 lead with 9:15 left.
With the Owls on the SBA 1-yard line seconds before the game ended, Pickens took a knee.
“We were just looking at it as the first region game. We need to win all of our region games,” said Alston.
“We have a group of guys that play as hard as they can all the time. We felt like we had the best team coming in. We had to execute and we executed moderately well.”
The Eagles’ senior running back and linebacker Colton Cochran, who was all-state in 2014, did not come off the field. He had seven punts for 212 yards, averaging 30.3 yards. John Kakales had one punt for MUS for 29 yards. MUS had 23 first downs.
“Even though it was a tough score, none of the younger kids gave up. That was the highlight tonight,” said Cochran. “We did a pretty good job on defense. We held them to 10 points (in the first half) which is good against them but we have got to do a better job coming out in the second half and not playing flat.”
Cochran, who had five tackles, said that he was impressed by the play of Austin Cary, D.J. Caldwell and O’Bryan on the defensive line. “The secondary played a heck of a game. Cam Jones is a sophomore and he played a great game.”
Caldwell had 7.5 tackles, Jones 7, Bubba Erwin 6.5, Eric McGlown 5 and a 15-yard sack. Jones’s interception went for 10 yards. Jones had six receptions for 35 yards.
“We are going to play hard and do the best we can with what we’ve got and either way, I am going to be proud of these kids because I know they are going to give a good effort,” said Scott Samsel. “We are young and our numbers are growing but they are not where they need to be. We play a lot of freshmen and sophomores.”
The match-up pitted state championship coaches. Samsel won the 6-A state championship when he was head coach at Olive Branch. He had a 201-86 record there in eight seasons.
Alston won state championships in 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009. “We have a good group of guys who have been working
hard. We do not have as big a senior group as we have had in the past but we have good leadership. I am pretty pleased so far.”
The Owls are without Tim Hart, a senior running back and linebacker who has committed to play at Tennessee next season. He suffered a high-ankle sprain three weeks ago.
The victory provided the Owls with “a lot of confidence going into the rest of our conference games. This win is pretty big,” said Regis.
Said Smith, “We should be able to start a run to the playoffs now.”
Written by Bill Sorrell, special to the Express.