PORT ALLEN — All that was needed Friday night was some cold weather and frozen tundra. Add that to the hard-hitting, defensive rumble in West Baton Rouge and the McMain vs. Port Allen football game could have been confused with an NFC Central, old-time winter battle.
Port Allen (5-0) came out on top 13-6, but it wasn’t easy.
The Pelicans opened the second half with a nine-play, 59-yard drive that was capped by a Ricky Merritt 5-yard touchdown run. Merritt, who had three carries for 29 yards, got things cranked up for the second half and the winning drive with a 30-yard kickoff return.
Ricky Decuir’s extra point gave the Pelicans a 7-6 lead. On Merritt’s TD run, wide receiver Quincy Paul made a peel-back block that opened up the left side for Merritt to scoot by and into the end zone.
Ashton Paul Williams returned a last-play Hail Mary pass from McMain quarterback Omari Jones 78 yards for a TD to account for the final score.
“I believe Merritt is a college football player,” Port Allen coach Guy Blanchard said. “If he was 6-foot-2, everyone in the country would be after him. He is a big-time football player.”
The only score of the first half came on a desperation pass from McMain quarterback Omari Jones to Eric Jenkins from 41 yards out with 6:06 left if the first half. On third-and-17, Jones dropped back and for the first time all night had time to throw. He launched a high spiral to the right sideline that would have made any punter proud because of the hang time. Jenkins sprinted underneath the pass between two defenders and fell into the end zone. The run for the two-point conversion failed.
The defensive battle shaped up early. Port Allen had only 31 yards rushing in the first half. McMain had 65, most of that coming on a 43-yard run by Joshua Rounds.
Port Allen’s dual threat Darian Claiborne was held in check in the first half. He had 47 yards on 13 carries, but 34 of those came on the last play of the half when he recovered his own fumble and reversed field. However, he was chased down as time ran out in the half.
Claiborne completed 3 of 10 passes for 23 yards in the first half. He finished the game with 127 yards rushing on 25 carries and added 32 yards passing.
“That’s a playoff game,” said McMain coach Kevin Russell, whose team fell to 1-3. “I think we’re one of the better 3A teams. We’ve played a tough schedule. They’re a tough team.”
However, Claiborne may have made the play of the game. On fourth-and-8 with less than five minutes left in the game, the Pelicans lined up to punt. Some miscommunication between Claiborne and the center led a bad snap that rolled around in the backfield. As both teams scrambled for the ball, Claiborne scooped it up and ran 27 yards for a first down.
“Big-time players make bit-time plays,” Blanchard said of his quarterback/punter. “He bailed us out several times.”
The Port Allen defense stepped up several times. McMain had only 66 total first-half rushing yards and 69 passing, the majority on the Hail Mary TD play. Jones completed 4 of 10 passes for 69 yards in the half.
In the fourth quarter with 8:43 left, defensive lineman Charles Mullins tackled McMain running back Joshua Rounds for a 5-yard loss. Later in the same drive, Mullins recovered a fumbled snap to stymie the Mustangs drive.
“He (Mullins) may be the strongest guy on the team, pound-for-pound,” Blanchard said. “He’d be our starting fullback. He’s our deep snapper. He plays defensive line. He’s one of the many good, young players we have.”