Titans host Pats in finale

McDowell receiver Evan Grigsby tries to make a catch while teammate Quantavian Moore looks on during a recent game. The Titans host Freedom tonight (Friday, 7:30 kickoff) in the season finale.

The last time the McDowell Titans hosted the Freedom Patriots, the two clubs combined to set a new state record.

It wasn’t the kind anyone would want to brag about.

The Titans and Pats set a new N.C. mark for combined penalty yardage in a single game during Freedom’s 41-14 win in 2017. McDowell was flagged 18 times for 179 yards and Freedom 14 times for 170 yards. The total, a whopping 349 yards, broke the old record by six yards (see related story).

While last season’s 40-13 Patriot win in Morganton wasn’t quite that bad in terms of yellow hankies — only 176 combined penalty yards — it did feature a couple of disqualified Titan players and plenty of mouthing by both sides. By the end of the third quarter, nearly everyone was ready to go home, and the clock ran the entire fourth quarter on agreement by both coaching staffs.

Both contests seemed indicative of a growing contentiousness surrounding the traditional rivalry as the two prepare to square off again tonight at Titan Stadium (7:30 kickoff).

For the Titans, it’s a true season finale. McDowell (0-5 Northwestern 3A/4A Conference, 1-8 overall) is out of the playoff picture, having lost to South Caldwell, the league’s only other 4A school.

Meanwhile, the Patriots (3-2, 6-4) need a win to guarantee themselves at least a tie for second place behind league champs Watauga.

The Titans haven’t played since Oct. 25, when they were shelled by Watauga 62-14. But first-year head coach Darrell Brewer said practice has been business as usual for the players during the down-week.

“These kids are very resilient,” said Brewer. “They’ve come in and worked hard. That’s the amazing thing about these kids, and it’s not as easy thing to do. At this point, it would be easy to pack it in, but they’ve worked hard and they’ve been responsive to everything we’ve tried to do. They’re a great bunch of kids.”

The Titans have certainly faced their share of adversity in recent weeks. McDowell has been outscored 175-24 by its last three opponents, South Caldwell, Alexander Central and Watauga.

Still, Brewer has seen progress and has found some bright spots.

“I think we’ve gotten better,” said Brewer. “Playing against Watauga, as bad as it was, we did have some bright spots. We moved the ball some against them and we ate up some clock.”

The Titans will need to do that again tonight. Freedom possesses big-play capability that rivals even that of Watauga (who defeated the Pats 48-33 last Friday).

Senior quarterback Jayden Birchfield (6-3, 205) has been outstanding in his career against the Titans, going 42-of-66 passing for 508 yards and six touchdowns and running for three more scores in two games.

Wide receiver Desmond Caldwell is one of the conference’s fastest players, and is only one of several Patriots who can score from anywhere on the field. Junior running back Chase Young is coming off a 150-yard effort in the loss to Watauga.

“They’ve got speed, speed, speed,” said Brewer. “I think we may match up with them OK up front, but with their skill players, we can’t keep up. Field position is not going to mean a whole lot, because they can score from 1 and they can score from 99.

“The best defense for us will be a good offense. We need to try and go straight at them and eat some clock.”

The Titans will need a solid game from running back Quantavian Moore, who leads the team with 690 yards and five touchdowns on 123 carries. Richard Handy has been effective at fullback after moving from tight end earlier in the season, and is second on the club with 193 yards and a score on 38 rushes.

Quarterback Riley Moore is 47-of-98 for 643 yards and six touchdowns with five interceptions. Handy is the leading receiver with 23 catches for 283 yards and two TDs.

Defensively, linebacker Harley Allison has led the squad in tackles wire-to-wire, and has 99 stops to his credit. Defensive back Jacob Pearson has 73 tackles and is tied with Handy for the team lead in tackles for loss with four. Sophomore linebacker Grayson Blackwelder has 52 tackles.

Notes: Tonight is senior night. The Titans’ senior players will be recognized prior to the game … Freedom has won four straight against McDowell going back to 2009 … The Titans’ last victory over the Pats was a 14-7 win in Morganton in 2008 … Freedom leads the all-time series 25-15. The mark would be 26-14 if not for a forfeit by the Patriots in 1980.

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