September 8, 2013 2:52:14 AM
WEST POINT -- The train was coming downhill all night. Sometimes it was the Oak Hill Academy Raiders' only weapon.
Fullback Drake Riley, all 6-foot-2, 185 pounds of him, frequently was met by a nasty, swarming Tri-County Academy defense responsible for 29 straight victories entering Friday's contest. Riley returned the favor, piling up more than half of his yards after contact. The junior had 128 yards on 24 carries, and despite a game-high 306 rushing yards, the Raiders lost 33-20.
"Drake is our bulldog," Oak Hill Academy coach Daniel Merchant said. "When we need tough yards, we're going to him."
Riley's brother, Drew, had a game-high 162 rushing yards to help the Raiders dominate time of possession. For every big run, though, there was a negative play -- three turnovers, namely -- to kill a drive. The Raiders had four possessions in the red zone but failed to score.
The mental errors were all too familiar for Merchant, who hoped his team could shake the mistakes that plagued it in a 48-42 loss to Marshall Academy on Aug. 30.
"We made a lot of mental mistakes ... way too many to have a chance at winning a game," Merchant said. "We cut out some fumbles, finish some drives, and we probably win this football game.
"Maybe (the players) not being used to be in big games like this, being in close games like this was the reason. The experience level has to get better, and it will as we go through the season."
For all of the offense's woes -- quarterback Riley Pierce threw two interceptions and lost a fumble -- the dominating traps and leads helped showcase a running game that has improved mightily from Merchant's first season in 2012. With the passing game misfiring in the second half, Oak Hill Academy coaches added a variety of reverse plays from the Wing-T formation.
"They're a great team defensively. There's no doubt about it," Drake Riley said. "They came out early and hit us in the mouth. This is one of the top-ranked teams in the state. We had to answer that and hit them in the mouth. We had to show them who we are."
The Rebels (3-0) had grown used to dominating opponents with a higher level of physicality, which helped mold a program that has won back-to-back Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AA state titles. Tri-County coach David Blount said Friday's victory was special because Oak Hill is "a really good team."
"This one is especially gratifying," Blount said. "I have a lot of respect for Oak Hill. For our kids to have some terrible defensive drives, where Oak Hill pounded it down our throats, we survived it. They listened to coaches' instructions and made adjustments and ended up having a good defensive game in the second half. This was a hard-fought game."
To start the third quarter, Oak Hill went on a ground assault and showcased a running game that will give Class AA opponents fits down the road. The Raiders ran 19 plays and took 8 minutes, 50 seconds off the clock. Drake Riley had nine carries for 37 yards. He had two runs for first downs, including a conversion on fourth-and-4. After reaching the Rebels' 18-yard line and carrying twice for 6 yards, the Raiders flamed out with two runs that went nowhere.
The Rebels made it a 27-14 game just two plays later.
"We drive it down their throat and we got nothing out of it," Merchant said. "I think that took some wind out of our sails."
The Raiders turned the ball over three times after the marathon drive to open the quarter.