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By STAN CALDWELL – Dispatch Correspondent
Richton’s playoff hopes in Class 1A may still be on life support, but their heart is still ticking.
The Rebels needed a win by at least 12 points against Mount Olive Friday night to keep those hopes alive, and they did what they had to do, defeating the Pirates 26-12 in their home finale.
Richton (3-7 overall) improved to 2-4 in Region 4-1A, but gained the tiebreaker advantage over Mount Olive (4-5, 2-4). The Rebels still must win next week at Salem and hope for some help. Nevertheless, it was a sweet way to end the home schedule.
“It’s awesome to go out a winner,” said senior tackle Christian Perry. “I’ve played here four years. The win is nice, but it’s definitely bittersweet being the last time I’ll get to come out here and play.
“I love my brothers out here and I wouldn’t trade my time as a Rebel for anything.”
The Rebels gutted this one out with what head coach Stephen Rice called, “the first time we’ve played a full four quarters of football.
“We’ve lost three games by a touchdown or less, one of those in overtime and lost a fourth by 12 or less. So, it’s just a situation where we’ve got a lot of young kids in key positions. But tonight, we kind of put it all together.”
They did it with contributions from all three phases of the game. The offense exhibited a quick-strike capability, the defense bent, but rarely broke and the special teams put the Rebels in optimum field position all night long.
Richton showed it could move the football on the opening possession of the game. Sophomore quarterback Dakota Amos hit a 19-yaard strike to Mills on third down, then a 14-yard pass to senior Chas McIlwain to move the ball to the Irate 25-yard-line.
However, Amos underthrew a pass to the end zone and the Pirates intercepted near the goal line.
“He’s come along these last two years,” Rice said. “I talked about some of those young players in preseason, our freshmen and sophomores. But at this point, 10 games in, they’re experienced players. He’s just a great athlete and he did a good job.”
That, however, would prove to be the Rebels’ only turnover of the game, and they got the ball right back on a fumble recovery at the 14-yard-line.
Richton was denied on a fourth-down pass, but held on defense and Mills’ 22-yard punt return set the Rebels up at the Mount Olive 28. On third-and-inches, Amos took a keeper around right end, slipped out of a tackle and dashed 18 yards for a touchdown.
Indeed, the return game was huge for Richton. In addition to catching four passes for 105 yards and getting 16 yards on two runs, Mills also had 114 yards on returns, including 77 yards on three kickoffs.
“I came out tonight, and I didn’t know where my head was at,” said Mills. “I missed a TD pass early in the game, but then I came out better. I knew it was my last time playing here on the Beach, as we call it, and I knew I just had to keep playing hard.”
The Pirates were able to establish their ground-eating running game on the next drive, led by junior Malachi Mickel, who carried 31 times for 144 yards.
“(Mickel) is a big-back bruiser and we knew he was going to bang it,” said Rice. “We knew the fullback was going to bang in there some. But defensively, we’re really made for this type of smashmouth football, and it worked out well for us tonight.”
Mount Olive amassed 281 yards rushing, but were unsuccessful on just five pass attempts, and that allowed the Rebels to stack the box against the run.
But Mickel was stopped on fourth-and-2 from the Richton 29 for a 1-yard loss, and the Rebels wasted no time making the Pirates pay.
Amos hit Mills for a 36-yard pass to the Pirate 36, then ran for 8 yards before junior Owen Carter swept around the left side and dashed untouched for a 28-yard touchdown run to put the Rebels up 14-0.
Mount Olive resumed its ground assault, however, driving 62 yards on 10 plays for a touchdown. Junior Ontario Lindsey took a jet sweep around left end for a 4-yard scoring run. The run for the conversion failed, but the Rebel lead was trimmed to 14-6.
The second half was more of the same. After an exchange of punts, the Pirates ground out a 15-play, 80 yard march that consumed 8 minutes, 25 seconds.
Mount Olive converted two fourth downs on the drive, including the touchdown on a 7-yard scamper by Mickel. A pass attempt on the conversion was no good, though, and the Rebels maintained a two-point lead, insufficient for their playoff needs.
In all, the Pirates had 17 first downs to just 10 for Richton, and dominated time of possession 30:06 to 17:54 for the Rebels.
All week, we knew we needed to win by 12 points to have a shot in a three-way tie,” said Perry, who is headed to Jones College to play next year. “We came out passing the football, and it worked out in our favor.”
But many times, it’s not how long you have the ball, but what you do with the time you have it. On the ensuing kickoff, Mills rambled 34 to set Richton up at the Pirate 40, and the Rebels needed just five plays to cover the distance.
Mills swept right end for a 13-yard touchdown run for a 20-12 lead with 6:56 to play in the fourth quarter. And it was Mills – who else? – who swiped a rare pass attempt to but the Rebels back in business at the Mount Olive 35.
Three plays later, Mills left the defender flat-footed and was wide-open for a 38-yard touchdown pass that gave the Rebels the all-important 12-point margin. Amos was just 5 of 12 passing, but tallied 128 yards on those five completions.
Both PAT kicks failed, but Richton sealed the deal, when senior Carson Edwards fell on a fumble at the Richton 31 with 59 seconds left.
“I just had to get gritty,” said Mills. “I had to run through a bunch of guys (on the 13-yard TD run) and I was able to push through. They couldn’t bring me down and I scored a touchdown.
“We came out all week and we were pass, pass, pass. We really didn’t run the ball much in practice. The corners were playing soft the whole game; I ran a hitch-and-go, and I fooled him and got open. Dakota put the ball right where I needed it.”
Richton still trails Resurrection by one game in the standings, as the Eagles were 48-6 winners over Enterprise-Lincoln Friday night. But they finish the season against Taylorsville, while the Rebels travel to winless Salem to complete the regular season.
“We knew all week that we had to win by 12 to have a chance,” said Mills. “We have to count on some other teams to do their thing, and maybe we’ll get in. But we’re still competing.”
If Richton, Mount Olive and Resurrection all finish at 3-4 in the standings, the point-differential between the three teams is even, with all three having a 12-plus win and a 12-plus loss against each other. The next tiebreaker is point-differential in all region games.
“I think you’ve got to be a math whiz to figure it all out,” said Rice. “All we can do is control what we can, just go over and win next week then see how it all shakes out.
“But, whatever happens, I’m proud of this team. We’ve got a lot of young guys who have really matured over the course of the season.”