If the McDowell Titans’ regular-season finale against the Freedom Patriots had been a horse, they’d have had to shoot it.
Four-and-a-half hours after it began, the miserable affair finally, mercifully, came to an end around midnight, and the Patriots walked away with a 41-14 victory that ended the Titans’ hopes of making the State 4A Playoffs, and thus, their season.
Along the way, there were two separate delays for lightning which totaled an hour-and-a-half, as well as a pounding rainstorm that chased all but a handful of stalwarts away from the stadium.
But that’s only the beginning.
The renewal of the traditional rivalry between the two schools turned into a nasty, contentious affair, defined by one set of stats above any other: The two teams combined to draw 32 penalties for 349 yards; ten of the Titans’ flags and six of Freedom’s were for either personal fouls or unsportsmanlike conduct.
As patience on both sides ran thin, the night degenerated into a squawking contest between fans on both sides, their voices clearly audible in the otherwise eerily quiet and nearly empty stadium.
The Titans finish the season 2-9 overall, 1-6 in their first campaign as part of the newly formed Northwestern 3A/4A Conference. Freedom improved to 7-4 overall and went 4-3 in league play.
If McDowell had won the game, the win, coupled with South Caldwell’s loss to conference champs Alexander Central, would have given the Titans the NWC’s only 4A playoff berth.
But Freedom jumped out to a 22-0 halftime lead, and McDowell never got closer than 21 the rest of the way.
“We played hard for a while, but we made a lot of mistakes,” said Titans head coach Andy Morgan. “I called some bad things defensively and got us out of position on a couple of screens, but for the most part, we dropped eight in coverage and tried to make him (Freedom quarterback Jayden Birchfield) run it. He got loose a couple times.
“The kids have worked hard all year. They’ve had a pretty good attitude, and I told the seniors I hate this season went the way it did. They worked their butts off in the offseason, but it’s going to take a lot more than just hard physical work. It’s going to take a lot of mental work and a lot of support from outside the program to turn this thing around.”
The Titans could never quite turn the corner against the Pats.
Birchfield (28-of-40 passing, 342 yards, 5 TDs, 11 rushes, 67 yards, TD) was a big reason why, accounting for 409 of his team’s 461 yards of total offense.
Midway through the first quarter, Freedom got superb field position after a punt, thanks to a 15-yarder on the Titans, and took over at the McDowell 20. Birchfield’s 5-yard run seconds later gave the Patriots a 6-0 lead with 6:17 to go in the quarter.
Early in the second quarter, Birchfield hooked up with freshman receiver Desmond Caldwell (11 receptions, 109 yards, 3TDs) on a 4-yard jet-sweep “pass” that pushed the lead to 13-0.
Birchfield hit Caldwell from 27 yards out on Freedom’s next possession, and it was 19-0.
Onyx Velez kicked a 21-yard field goal as time expired to give Freedom its 22-0 lead at the break.
The Patriots picked up where they left off in the third quarter. Birchfield hit Burke Pollard (5 receptions, 55 yards, TD) on a nifty screen pass for a 22-yard score and a 28-0 lead.
McDowell answered almost instantly. J.C. Olivo fielded the ensuing kickoff at the 15. Forced outside the blocking wedge, Olivo hit the sideline and somehow stayed in bounds, tip-toeing along the line for an 85-yard touchdown, his second kickoff return TD of the year.
Chase Baird made it 28-7 with the extra point.
But Freedom got a 36-yard scoring strike from Birchfield with 11 minutes left in the game to stretch it back to 35-7.
The Titans’ Adam Randolph hooked up with his twin, Andruw, on a 57-yard pass play on the ensuing possession, setting up McDowell at the Patriots 6. Adam Randolph broke free on a keeper and dove across the line to trim the deficit to 35-14 with 9:50 remaining.
But that was it for the McDowell comeback.
The Pats found the end zone one more time on a 16-yarder from Birchfield to Jaxon McMahan (4-50-TD) with 5:41 to play.
Leading 41-14, Freedom elected to go for the two-point conversion, but didn’t make it.
The Patriots pulled Birchfield after that, but were still throwing the football on their final drive with less than a minute to play.
Titans quarterback Ben Ballew injured his shoulder on a sack in the third quarter, just before the second lightning delay, and did not return. He finished 9-of-21 passing for 60 yards. McDowell’s receivers appeared to struggle mightily catching the ball in the wet conditions, especially early in the game.
Adam Randolph was 5-of-7 passing for 79 yards.
Andruw Randolph caught seven passes for 78 yards. Seth Phillips (2 receptions, 20 yards), Dakota Effler (2-20), Trevor Pearson (2-17) and Olivo (1-4) also caught passes.
Olivo rushed for a team-high 74 yards on 14 carries.