Paul Bryant’s discontent began on the opening drive in a 35-13 AHSAA Class 6A first-round playoff loss to the home-standing Stanhope Elmore Mustangs.
“Everybody was 100 percent bought in,” Mustangs coach Brian Bradford said. “We’ve been preaching all week, all season, that if you buy into what we are doing we will win some football games. I think we played well as a team. When we come out and don’t shoot ourselves in the foot then we are a pretty decent little team. I told them that I’ve never coached a team like this before. I’ve been a coach on some good teams, but I’ve never had a group of young men where the team and the brotherhood like we’ve had this year.”
Led by workhorse Tray Duncan’s 203-yard performance, the Mustangs will advance to face Park Crossing in the second round.
“Coach told me I was going to be involved tonight, so it was expected,” Duncan said. “We knew we could take control on the first play. We went in and began drilling them. That first drive was very big.”
Duncan finished the first half with 87 yards rushing, including 49 on the opening drive alone.
“That first drive set the tempo for the game. It was huge,” Bradford said. “We had a lot of passes scripted, and planned on throwing the ball a little more than what we did, but the run was there wide open. When we had to throw the ball, it was there.”
But it wasn’t just the offense setting the tempo. The Mustangs defense came out and quelled the visiting Stampede, making their punter into a key offensive weapon.
“We are a defense-first football team and we’ve been that way since Stanhope Elmore first opened the doors,” Bradford said. “That’s the way we’ve always been and that’s the way we are going to be. They’ve done an outstanding job this year.”
There’s the rub.
For as good as the Mustangs’ defense played, Paul Bryant used chicanery to put points on the board scoring touchdowns on a double-pass then later in the period a fake field goal.
Jumping back into the game, Duncan amassed 49 yards on that opening drive. He punctuated the points with a jaunt up the gut for the score.
Paul Bryant didn’t have an answer as Duncan scored twice more in the opening half. On short-yardage situations, the 6-foot senior found lanes left wide open by Mustangs lineman setting up scores from 3 yards out and then from one yard.
“I love those guys,” Duncan said. “They keep doing their job so I can do mine.”
Stanhope carried the 21-0 lead into the break.
After a 28-yard run to open the second half, it was a 25-yard pass from Andrew Rines to Connor Bradford that moved the Mustangs into a 28-0 lead.
The Stampede, however, found legs as Ty-Javian Edwards completed a swing pass to Ray Lucky, who completed a pass downfield into the arms of Alphus Shipman for the touchdown. With 3:11 left in the third period, Paul Bryant converted a fourth-down fake field goal for the score.
“We came out preaching shutout; that’s all we were looking for, especially with the way we dominated in the first half,” Stanhope Elmore’s Jeremy Thompson said. “But any win is a good win.”
Going into the fourth period, the Mustangs took control of the ball and the clock. TJ Jackson — who had been chasing the Stampede signal-caller all night — finally laid hands upon Edwards, forcing him to crumble and fumble the football.
Anthony Toby pounced on the loose football and moved it down inside the five.
Three plays later the Mustangs had expanded their lead to 35-13.
For as much success as Duncan had en route to eviscerating the Paul Bryant defense, it was Thompson who was left smiling ear-to-ear. In the waning moments of the game, he fielded an errant pass to set the school record for interceptions.
“It feels amazing breaking the school record,” said Thompson, who has 30 picks total and seven on the season. “With my community and my team behind me, it feels great. Without that, I wouldn’t be able to make any plays.”