August 23, 2009 12:33:00 AM
LOUISVILLE -- It wasn''t quite the way Louisville High School junior running back Blake Cunningham envisioned starting the 2009 football season.
Cunningham, who is being counted on to shoulder a lot of the ball-toting load vacated by the departure of Dandy Dozen Mississippi State signee Dennis Thames, fumbled the ball away on Louisville''s first play of the game.
Six plays later, Northwest Rankin scored and coach Brad Peterson was wondering what was going on.
"That''s one of the things we talked about, protect the football, protect the football, and dadgum it, we fumble on the first play and they go in and score and I said, ''gosh, what a way to start the season,'' " Peterson said.
But it didn''t take long for Cunningham and the Wildcats to redeem themselves. They scored on their next seven possessions en route to a 41-21 win against Northwest Rankin.
Louisville, which won the Class 3A state title last year, has moved up to Class 4A, while Northwest Rankin is a Class 6A team in the Mississippi High School Activities Association.
"When it first happened, I was kind of mad," Cunningham said. "But I had to get it out of my mind and go and make the next play."
Cunningham made several plays, in fact, scoring three times in the second quarter.
With Louisville trailing 14-7 after one quarter, Cunningham tied the game at 14 with 9 minutes, 49 seconds left in the half on a 17-yard pass from senior quarterback Chris Wraggs.
Six minutes later, he put the Wildcats up 21-14 on a 2-yard run. He gave Louisville a 28-14 halftime lead on a 4-yard toss from Wraggs on a nice roll out read from the quarterback with 1:13 left in the half.
"Chris did a great job of running the offense," Peterson said. "He threw some really good passes and made the right decisions."
Wraggs was 12 of 14 passing for 196 yards. He also led the team with 94 yards on 11 carries.
While Wraggs began the 2008 season as a backup to Dandy Dozen quarterback Clayton Moore, he led the team when Moore went out to injury early in the season and quarterbacked the 26-21 Class 3A state title victory against Tylertown last December.
"Doing all of that gave me a lot of experience for this game," Wraggs said.
Wraggs said that once Louisville drove down the field on its second possession of the game to tie the score at 7 he wasn''t concerned about his team''s offense.
"Once we scored the first time, I knew then it was going to be a good night," he said.
While the Wildcats like to spread the ball out and use the entire field, Peterson listened to his players and changed the game plan in the first quarter.
"The offensive line was coming to us, especially after that second possession and said, ''We can move ''em, we can move ''em,'' " Peterson said. "That''s what we did. We ran the ball right at them. We ran more power out of the gun tonight than we probably ever have run, but that''s because they were trying to take away our stretch."
After Northwest Rankin took the 7-0 lead on a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Chase Taylor, the Wildcats moved 80 yards on eight plays to score on a 7-yard run by Wraggs.
The Cougars went up 14-7 on a 10-yard pass from Taylor, only to have Cunningham counter with three consecutive touchdowns.
The Wildcats used a little trickery to break the game open early in the third quarter.
Faced with a second and 21 at its 32, Louisville ran what looked to be a flanker screen to Tajh Ford. But after he caught the ball on a lateral, Ford stood up and fired the ball down field to a wide open Markese Triplett, who made an outstanding catch while backpedaling and changing direction. He then eluded a trio of defenders for a 68-yard scoring play.
"I told them at halftime if we can stop them the first possession and then score I thought we would win the football game," Peterson said.
Each team traded fourth-quarter touchdowns, with Northwest Rankin scoring with 16 seconds left to play.
Louisville will travel to Starkville on Friday night.