The McDowell Titans were defeated in their season finale against the Freedom Patriots Friday night.
They were not, however, beaten.
The Titans (0-6 Northwestern 3A/4A Conference, 1-9 overall) gave a gutsy effort, but couldn’t match the explosiveness of the big-play Patriots in a 50-24 defeat on a frosty night at Titan Stadium.
Despite the loss, players and coaches remained upbeat afterward, and talk of the future began almost immediately.
“They haven’t won since Week 2,” said Titans head coach Darrell Brewer. “How many kids would still be putting forth that kind of effort? Not many. That says a lot for those boys. I told them three or four weeks ago, if you guys don’t quit on me, I promise I won’t quit on you, and they haven’t. At the end of the night, they gave everything they’ve got. I’m proud to be their coach.”
Friday’s loss put the wraps on a season awash with adversity for McDowell. A late start (June) for Brewer put the team behind from the start, and a serious leg injury and subsequent surgery kept the new head coach off the sidelines for the first half of the campaign. A key transfer just before the season began further disrupted the Titans’ rhythm, and a few season-ending injuries compounded their problems.
But Friday’s effort was indicative of how the team responded all season.
“Quitting is easy,” said Brewer. “Just look at the divorce rate. You have a problem, just move on; quit. Don’t work toward trying to fix things. I told these seniors, they way you kept fighting and kept working, you guys were here when we laid the foundation. You were a part of it. I made them a promise: We’re going to fix it.”
Even Freedom head coach Luke Little, whose club now advances to the State 3A Playoffs, sounded optimistic about the Titans’ future.
“Even though their record isn’t good, they play hard and they’re physical,” said Little. “Coach Brewer is doing a good job and they’re changing the culture. Those middle school teams have looked very good, and I think they’ve got a bright future.”
The present was all about the Patriots, though.
Freedom (4-2, 7-4) turned in a remarkably efficient performance on offense, opened up a 30-6 halftime lead and was never threatened.
Senior quarterback Jayden Birchfield went 8-of-9 passing for 153 yards and a touchdown in the first half. He then moved to receiver after the break, and freshman QB Ty Little went 8-of-8 for 95 yards and two scores in the second half.
Receiver Desmond Caldwell caught six passes for 143 yards and touchdowns of 3 and 35 yards. Running back Chase Young rushed for 156 yards and three scores on just 13 carries.
The Patriots also got a 100-yard interception return from Demorian Burgess to cap off their scoring in the fourth quarter.
Freedom’s 412 yards were enough to overcome McDowell’s season-high 356 rushing yards.
Tailback Quantavian Moore led the way for the Titans, running for 151 yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts. Fullback Richard Handy bulldozed his way to 97 yards and a score on 14 carries. Jacob Pearson racked up 50 yards and a score on nine rushes.
Quarterback Riley Moore also ran for a touchdown late in the second quarter, but injured his ankle on the play and did not return. Senior lineman Levi Lister got in on the action late in the contest with a 26-yard run out of the fullback spot in the power-I the first time he touched the ball.
“I felt coming into the game we could do some things offensively,” said Brewer. “I knew defense was going to be a struggle. We just don’t have the kids right now to match up with that speed.”
Freedom’s speed was a factor on the Pats’ very first possession.
The Titans drove to the Freedom 40 before being forced to punt on the game’s first drive. Seth Baird’s kick was downed at the 1, but Young ripped off a 59-yard run on first down that got the Patriots out of the hole. Young’s 6-yard touchdown carry moments later, coupled with Birchfield’s conversion run, made it 8-0 with 3:45 to go in the first quarter.
After McDowell went three-and-out on its next possession, Young went back to work with a 50-yard pickup to the Titan 5. Young scored from there two plays later, and it was 16-0 after he rumbled for the two-point conversion.
Early in the second quarter, Birchfield found a wide-open Caldwell on a 58-yard catch-and-run. Young carried for the points-after to make it 24-0 with 8:28 to play in the half.
McDowell answered by going 70 yards in 11 plays to get on the scoreboard. Pearson had a 14-yard carry and Quantavian Moore a 20-yarder on the march. An interference call on Young on a fourth-and-11 play kept the drive alive, and Riley Moore’s 2-yard keeper trimmed the deficit to 24-6 with 1:54 remaining in the half.
The Titans scored too early.
Birchfield took to the air and guided Freedom downfield on a clock-management exercise that culminated in Young’s 2-yard score with 34 seconds showing on the clock. The conversion run was unsuccessful, but the Patriots led 30-6 at intermission.
Freedom added to its lead when Little hooked up with Damien Dula for a 3-yard scoring pass on the jet sweep to cap the initial drive of the third quarter. Young bowled over for the two-pointer and a 38-6 advantage.
The action was fast and furious for the remainder of the third.
Quantavian Moore’s 5-yard run made it 38-12. Moments later, Little hit Caldwell for 35 yards on the slant, and it was 44-12. The Titans came right back with a 2-yard score from Handy, which was precipitated by a 42-yard burst from Quantavian Moore.
It looked as if McDowell might cut further into Freedom’s 44-18 advantage when the Titans drove from their own 40 to the Pats’ 7. But on fourth-and-4, Burgess stepped in front of Gabe Marsh’s pass at the goal line and took it the length of the field for a 50-18 lead.
McDowell had time for one last drive, going 66 yards in six plays. Lister toted the ball three times on the march, and Pearson bulled his way in from the 15 to polish it off with 1:12 to go.
The two teams, who had played ugly, penalty-marred games in their previous two meetings, were much cleaner this time. Freedom incurred eight flags for 68 yards, the Titans eight for 69.
It made for an enjoyable game from a fan’s perspective, with both clubs trying some unconventional plays and personnel groupings. When it was over, the Titans departed with a palpable sense of optimism.
“I was proud of the way the kids responded,” said Brewer. “They walked off the field with their heads held high. There’ll be better days.”
NOTES: In an unusual twist, neither team attempted an extra-point kick all night…Freedom finished in a three-way tie for second in the NWC standings with Hickory and Alexander Central. A drawing was held prior to Friday’s games to settle the likely deadlock, and Little confirmed the Pats emerged with the conference’s second seed behind two-time NWC champs Watauga…Freedom had seven “chunk” plays of 20 yards or better, while the Titans had six…The Titans wore camo jerseys in a show of appreciation for the military.
First downs 19 25
Rushes-yds. 20-164 54-356
Passing 16-17-0-3 0-4-2
Passing yds. 248 0
Total yds. 412 356
Return yds. 241 74
Fumbles/lost 0/0 3/0
Penalties-yds. 8-68 8-69
Punts-avg. 1-33 2-26.5
Freedom 16 14 14 06 – 50
McDowell 00 06 12 06 – 24
Individual stats: Rushing: Freedom (Chase Young 13-156-3TDs, Jayden Birchfield 2-6, Ty Little 3-m8, Curt Young 2-10) McDowell (Quantavian Moore 17-151-TD, Richard Handy 14-97-TD, Jacob Pearson 9-50-TD, Riley Moore 5-18-TD, Gabe Marsh 5-25, Levi Lister 3-28, Team 1-m13) Passing: Freedom (Birchfield 8-9-0-1-153 yds., Little 8-8-0-2-95 yds.) Receiving: Freedom (Desmond Caldwell 6-143-2TDs, Damien Dula 4-29-TD, Demorian Burgess 1-13, Alec Hall 2-m1, D. Hedrick 1-26, Birchfield 2-38)
F – Ch. Young 6 run, Birchfield 1 conv. run (3:45)
F – Ch. Young 5 run, Ch. Young 3 conv. run (1:19)
F – Caldwell 58 pass from Birchfield, Ch. Young 3 conv. run (8:28)
M – R. Moore 2 run, conv. run failed (1:54)
F – Ch. Young 2 run, conv. pass failed (:34)
F – Dula 3 pass from Little, Ch. Young 3 conv. run (8:14)
M – Q. Moore 5 run, conv. run failed (5:27)
F – Caldwell 35 pass from Little, conv. pass failed (3:04)
M – Handy 2 run, conv. run failed (1:18)
F – Burgess 100 interception return, conv. run failed (3:58)
M – Pearson 15 run, conv. run failed (1:12)