For the second time this season, an opposing defense dared the Thompson High offense to run the football. And, for the second time this season, Shadrick Byrd, JoJo Ford and their blockers have happily obliged.
This time, Byrd ran for 167 yards and two touchdowns while Ford accounted for 110 yards and two more scores. By the time they were through, the unbeaten Warriors were celebrating a 51-21 homecoming victory over the Panthers at Larry Simmons Stadium.
“Off the chart,” said Thompson High head coach Mark Freeman when asked how well his running backs are playing this season. “We’re so blessed with both of our running backs. They break tackles, they hold on to the football. There are games, they are going to be the (go-to) guys. Twice this season, a team has said ‘Your running backs are going to have to beat us.’ We’re blessed that, both times, our running backs have answered.”
They did in on Friday by gaining huge chunks in the non-region game. Byrd carried the ball 13 times and Ford had just nine carries. Put their numbers together and they averaged 12.6 yards per carry. That type of performance will win you a lot of games. They also got the ball into the end zone. Byrd had touchdown runs of 32 and 8 yards and Ford had scoring runs of 56 and 1 yards.
The Warriors (5-0) needed that spark on a night that didn’t go as smoothly as the final score would indicate. In fact, it was Pelham which dominated the first quarter. The Panthers (3-3) ran 20 plays for 84 yards in the first quarter and also scored the only touchdown of the quarter. Thompson managed just 34 yards on seven plays in the first 12 minutes.
“It could have been 21-0,” Freeman said. “We were ragged at first.”
Perhaps the only reason it wasn’t worse was a pair of big defensive plays by the Warriors. The first came on the opening drive when linebacker K.J. Robertson fell on a bad pitch at the Warriors 24-yard line. Pelham scored on its next possession and s short kickoff was recovered by the Panthers at the Warriors 33-yard line. Pelham’s shot at building onto the lead ended when the Thompson defense stuffed the running back on 4th-and-inches from the 5-yard line.
Thompson answered the big play with a quick 95-yard drive that began with a 44-yard Byrd run, included a 29-yard pass from Taulia Tagovailoa to Alondae Vassar and ended with a 9-yard scoring strike from Tagovailoa to Vassar.
The score remained tied for three plays. Pelham moved ahead 14-7 on a 56-yard pass from quarterback Xavier Lankford to receiver Edward Gipson.
Thompson controlled the rest of the half. It was far from a smooth night for Tagovailoa but the junior quarterback did throw first half touchdown passes of 15 yards to Ahmad Harris-Edwards and 3 yards to Mo Edwards. The Warriors also added a safety on a bad snap in punting formation.
In the second half, the running game and the Warriors defense took over. Ford scored the first touchdown on the second half with a tackle-breaking 56-yard run and the defense kept Pelham out of the end zone for the first 17 minutes of the second half.
Byrd, who also had 24 yards receiving on two catches, scored the next two touchdowns and Ford added the final score of the game. Tagovailoa for 15-of-23 for 160 yards with three touchdowns and his first interception of the season. Harris-Edwards had seven catches for 55 yards, his first game this season without double-digit receptions.
Jalen Rayam led the defense with 8.5 tackles, Will Conner had six tackles and two tackles for loss, Macky McNeal and Myles Brown each had five tackles and Robertson had 4.5 tackles, a sack and the fumble recovery. Pelham finished with 268 yards on 61 plays.