Triumphant Mobile Christian players hoist the Blue Map after beating Madison Academy 55-28 Thursday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. (Helen Joyce/Call News)
Mobile Christian quarterback Damien Gatson scans the field under pressure from Madison Academy’s defense Thursday in the Class 3A state championship game at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Gatson threw for five touchdowns and was sacked just once in the 55-28 win. (Helen Joyce/Call News)
Mobile Christian’s Kentonio Kelly (7) breaks away for a 55-yard touchdown pass from Damien Gatson early in the fourth quarter to seal a 55-28 victory in the Class 3A state championship game Thursday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Kelly also had 14 tackles and an interception. (Helen Joyce/Call News)
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
TUSCALOOSA — Mobile Christian gave quarterback Damien Gatson a slingshot and a stone Thursday and with it slayed the gargantuan specter of two past losses in the state championship game.
Gatson repeatedly slung the rock at Madison Academy before finally striking the Mustangs between the eyes with the last of his five touchdown passes, a 55-yarder to Kentonio Kelly in the fourth quarter, and the No. 1-ranked Leopards went on to a 55-28 victory to win their first Blue Map.
“I thank God,” said Gatson, a junior who has committed to play baseball at South Alabama. “This is one to remember.”
Gatson, who was named the game’s MVP, nearly pitched the football equivalent of a perfect game — he was 15-of-20 passing for 298 yards and no interceptions — and authored a new version of David and Goliath in one of the cathedrals of football.
Before each game in the playoffs, Mobile Christian’s players heard a devotional based around the Biblical account of David killing Goliath with a rock from a slingshot and, although undefeated, were convinced they were stalking a giant — in this case, the Leopards’ losses in the Class 3A state championship games in 2016 and 2019.
As the playoff victories piled up this season, the names of the vanquished teams were written on stones — Beulah, Houston Academy, Trinity and St. James.
One clean stone was left but it kept bouncing off Madison Academy’s forehead before Gatson’s 55-yard TD pass to Kelly finally staggered and dropped the Mustangs to the sacred grass of Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Kelly — who also had 14 tackles and an interception — grabbed Gatson’s short pass underneath the coverage and began cramping on his way to the end zone but stayed on his feet long enough to deliver the crushing coup de grace to Madison Academy, which refused to surrender after trailing 14-0 in the first quarter and 35-14 in the third quarter.
“I was feeling the cramp but I couldn’t go down,” Kelly said.
The Mustangs shaved the lead to 35-28 early in the fourth quarter but once Kelly crossed into the crimson-tinged end zone, it was 42-28 with 10:10 remaining. Mobile Christian then finished the job and a 15-0 season with breakaway scoring runs of 63 yards from P.J. Brown and 36 yards from Jason Todd to set off a celebration among the fans who made the journey from Mobile.
“I’m so thankful,” said Leopards coach Ronnie Cottrell, who witnessed perhaps his finest coaching moment through sunglasses with only one operable eye after surgery for a detached retina last week.
“It’s been nine years building to this and the true satisfaction for me is the coaches who have been here with me and created a standard that helped us get to this point. Every time they came back, we answered it. That’s the DNA of this team — great poise.”
Mobile Christian — which trailed only twice all season, including early in a 34-30 semifinal win over defending state champion St. James — unleashed Gatson to attack Madison Academy with a cavalcade of big plays through the air after the Mustangs’ stacked defense held the Leopards to only 52 yards rushing through the first three quarters.
“After losing in 2016 and 2019, our goal was to make it 15 games,” Cottrell said. “After we beat St. James, with the way we kept our poise, I knew we’d win it, I just didn’t know it would be this convincing.”
With Madison Academy choking off a running game that had averaged 241 yards rushing behind 368 pancake blocks, Aaron Rogers, Jordon Woullard, Brown and Kelly plucked TD passes out of the bright, sun-soaked sky.
“I knew I had to get the ball to my playmakers and we used our speed well,” Gatson said. “We just took advantage of what their defense gave us.”
Observed star center Bo Cagle: “They loaded the box but that opened up all the passing touchdowns. We said we knew we could throw it if we got in a bind.”
Rogers scored on a 38-yard post and Brown on a 33-yard throwback as Mobile Christian seized a 14-0 lead after barely nine minutes.
“We knew we had to catch the momentum early,” Gatson said. “After that second touchdown pass, I was sure it was there when we needed it.”
Four plays into the second half, Gatson caught Rogers on a square-in for a 52-yard TD and a 28-14 lead. Six minutes later, Gatson found Woullard bodying up in single coverage for a 24-yard TD and a 35-14 lead.
Thirty seconds after Madison Academy cut the lead to 35-28 early in the fourth quarter, Kelly’s 55-yard catch-and-run ended any doubt the Leopards would win their first AHSAA state championship.
“There were no nerves,” Gatson said of the trophy-clinching play. “I told him I knew it was going to be open.”
Gatson saw defensive back Josh Williams come off the edge and knew Kelly would be free after the Mustangs’ pursuit came after Gatson, who was rolling out.
“I knew I had to get rid of it,” he said. “Those two outside guys crashed down and the linebacker took the bootleg.”
Kelly — who brought four bottles of cologne with him to Tuscaloosa — came out smelling sweet.
“They had been running the delayed blitz and I ran right under them,” he said.
But four bottles of cologne?
“I knew we’d win the state title and I wanted to smell good when we did it,” Kelly said.
Madison Academy coach Bob Godsey said his team couldn’t swallow all of Mobile Christian’s big plays.
“We climbed back in today but couldn’t get over the hump,” said Godsey, whose team finished 14-1. “It hurts right now but when we look at what we accomplished this year, it will be good.”
After seeing a 14-0 first-quarter lead dissolve, the Leopards took the lead for good after Michael Moore got behind a rare wall and broke a 65-yard return on the ensuing kickoff. Woullard scored on a 2-yard run moments later to make it 21-14.
Cottrell said special teams coach Steve Walker called the wall return “and we hadn’t done that a lot. Michael hit that crease and he was gone.”
Moore said his coaches had scouted the kick coverage and picked the right moment to take the momentum away from the Mustangs.
“It changed the momentum and got the crowd and the players going,” he said. “They kicked to one spot and we saw they all went to that spot, so the wall would work. Once I got outside, I said, ‘I’ve got this.’”
The teams combined for 982 yards of total offense, 514 by Madison Academy, which still lost despite holding the ball for 12 more minutes than Mobile Christian.
Quarterback Jake Poldiak was 20-of-39 passing for 342 yards and two touchdowns but was also intercepted three times in the first half by Kelly, Sema’j Law and Todd.
“We knew we’d need some turnovers and we felt like that took something out of them,” said Kelly, Class 3A’s leading tackler.
Ken Cherry, the leading rusher in Class 3A, ran for 127 yards on 24 carries and scored on runs of 19 and 13 yards.
Brown ran for 105 yards on 17 carries and Rogers had five catches for 134 yards.
In a game between Class 3A’s highest-scoring offense and its toughest defense against the score, the Leopards prevailed by forcing three turnovers and making the Mustangs throw more than they wanted.
“We’ve got a strong run defense,” Mobile Christian defensive coordinator Charles Lawson said. “We’re heavy up front and our linebackers are physical and play downhill. Where they got us was the little out routes, the play actions and the screens. We’re in the state championship game and we knew they were playing here for a reason. They weren’t going to quit. We had to bend but not break.”