November 21, 2010 1:36:00 AM
ABERDEEN -- Belmont arrived in Aberdeen for Friday''s Mississippi High School Activities Association''s Class 3A quarterfinal matchup with a perfect 12-0 mark, a record crafted on the Cardinals'' mastery of three phases of the game -- scoring defense, rushing and their ability to play mistake-free football.
But when the Cardinals left Lester Miley Stadium several hours later, their perfect record was no longer intact as Aberdeen (13-1) rallied from a rare 14-14 halftime standoff en route to a 37-14 playoff win.
Belmont''s try for a baker''s dozen in the win column and the right to move on to the North Half finals next Friday were denied because the Cardinals gave up more points than they had all season, they didn''t come close to matching their prolific rushing totals and they made several crucial blunders in the second half.
Personal foul penalties and an interception return for a touchdown notwithstanding, Belmont''s most costly mistake came on its initial possession of the second half when the Cardinals, locked in a tight 14-14 struggle, marched from their own 32-yard line to the Aberdeen 1, where they face a fourth-and-goal.
A 5-yard delay of game penalty, however, pushed the ball back to the 6 and then 6-5 senior wide receiver Jon Harrison couldn''t hang on to a Kase Smith pass deep in the end zone to end the threat.
"The delay penalty that backed them up to the 6 couldn''t have come at a better time," said Aberdeen head coach Chris Duncan. "We had kept them from scoring on three rushing attempts inside the 6, so it forced them to go to the air on that last play."
Still knotted at 14-all, Aberdeen kept the ball on the ground to run out the remainder of the third quarter. But two plays into the fourth period, a third-and-9 pass from quarterback Desmond Jones to Aaron McMillian fell two yards short at the Belmont 47. That brought on punter Antonio Crayton, whose 43-yard punt was downed at the Cardinal 10.
Aberdeen''s defensive unit then forced a three-and-out to give the Dogs excellent field position at the Cardinals'' 38 after a Harrison punt. Running back Victor Hodges promptly picked up 23 yards on three carries to set up a Jones-to-Andre Jernigan 15-yard scoring strike with 7:30 left in the game to break the tie. Crayton''s PAT kick upped the count to 21-14.
Coach Patrick Schoolar''s defenders held Belmont to a net 2 yards on its next series and then a high snap over the head of Harrison on a fourth-down punt resulted in a safety and a 23-14 lead with 5:25 to go.
Brandon Smith returned Belmont''s ensuing free kick to the Cardinals'' 43. Jones then hit Jalen Devauld on a 7-yard gainer and Aberdeen picked up 15 more yards to the 21 when Belmont''s Dustin Poole was flagged for a personal foul.
Three plays later, Jones scored from 12 yards out on a keeper thanks to a downfield block from Justin Lucas. Crayton''s point-after kick gave the Dogs a 16-point cushion (30-14) with 2:20 left.
Thirteen seconds later, Aberdeen''s Zavia Forshee picked Smith off at the 36 and returned it for the game''s final touchdown. Crayton''s kick accounted for the 37-14 final.
"Our offense struggled against their defense and some mental mistakes also hurt us in the second half," said Belmont coach Kerry Moody. "Defensively, we were having trouble stopping them because their speed presented a big problem for us."
Ironically enough, Belmont -- a team that threw only 54 passes for 230 total yards all year -- went to the air for both of its first-half touchdowns and had 94 yards passing after two quarters. Harrison made a leaping catch in the end zone for the Cardinals'' first score 15 seconds into the second quarter and then Poole latched on to a Smith aerial from 21 yards out with less than a minute to go in the half.
"Our passing game helped out in the first half," Moody said. "But then we had a couple of plays there in the second half that changed the momentum around and we never could rebound."
Aberdeen''s first-half touchdowns came off a 23-yard scoring strike from Jones to Devauld with 1:41 to go in the first quarter and on a 3-yard run by Hodges with 4 minutes left in the second period.
"I told my team all week long that we would be in a real battle with Belmont and that''s the way things turned out," said Aberdeen head coach Chris Duncan. "We found ourselves in a heck of a ballgame, but we responded well under pressure and played our butts off to come away with the win.
"The good thing is after beating people like we have most of the season we needed a good battle -- a game like this to test us and that''s what it did. It was the kind of game that makes your hair fall out."
Belmont, a team which averaged 328 yards rushing per game and featured three running backs who finished with more than 1,000 yards rushing, 57 combined touchdowns and more than 9.0 yards per carry average, could muster only 129 yards rushing on 31 carries and no touchdowns on the ground.
Cody Sartain, who gained 1,158 yards and had a team-high 10.07-yard average per carry, led the Cardinals in rushing with 68 yards on 11 carries. Poole, who had 1,113 yards on the ground and a 9.85 average, picked up 51 yards on 11 carries, while Jordan Powell, who led the Cardinals with 1,239 yards rushing, was held to 12 yards on seven carries for a 1.7 yards per rush average.
Belmont''s aerial attack came close to matching its rushing totals, as Smith connected on 7-of-13 pass attempts for 121 yards -- well more than half its season total of 230 yards passing.
"The defense came to play," said Duncan. "I''m proud of their effort."
Offensively, Aberdeen racked up 235 yards rushing and Jones accounted for 81 more yards through the air for a total of 314 yards. The hard-charging Hodges led all runners with 111 yards on 24 carries and Jones picked up 76 yards on the ground on 11 tries.