Tunica Academy earned a berth in the MAIS North A State Championship game after defeating Winona Academy on the road 27-16 in playoff competition Friday.
The Blue Devils, who dominated the scoreboard the entire contest, relied — as usual — on its ground game, but won it in the trenches, according to Head Coach Jimmy Hicks.
“They had three guys that topped out around the 300 mark and our offensive line did a great job handling them up front,” Hicks said. “We teach our team that to win, you have to win the game up front and I’m proud to say that our guys did that. They really did a super job.”
While the offensive line did its job enabling the Blue Devils’ high octane offense to work, the TA scoring machine was led by senior running back Freeman Gray, along with a host of other Devils on both sides of the ball.
In the first half, with the Stars trying to rally back from an early Tunica score, sophomore defensive back Jake Graves stepped in front of a Winona pass and ran it back 40 yards to put Tunica up 14-0 early in the game.
“For him to pick that pass off at that time and run it back 40 yards for a touchdown … that really took some wind out of their sails,” Hicks said. “That was probably the biggest play of the game.”
Later in the half, Winona drove the ball down the field for a score and converted for two more points to bring the score to 14-8.
But the Blue Devils weren’t done. In the closing minutes of the first half, sophomore receiver Austin Hagstrom picked up 20 yards on a pass from junior quarterback Brandon Holmes to put the Devils within striking distance. With no timeouts remaining, Holmes spiked the ball to set up one final play with just three seconds remaining on the clock.
Executing a rollout pass-option play, Holmes scampered 10 yards into the endzone for Tunica’s third score of the half. Kicker Rip Kirk’s extra point attempt was good, and the Devils ended the half with a 21-8 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff after the half, senior receiver Tyler Billingsley recovered a Winona onside kick and advanced it seven yards to the Blue Devil 43 yard line. But two false start penalties backed the Devils up making for a 2nd and 16 situation.
After a short gain set up a 3rd down and 9, Gray, starting from the Tunica 38 yard line, caught a 10 yard pass to keep the Devils’ drive alive. Gray later capped off the eight play drive with a one yard run into the endzone for a 27-8 Tunica lead.
While the Blue Devils missed on the PAT and Winona added another 8 points on a touchdown and 2 point conversion, Tunica held strong to keep the lead and earn the victory and a North A State playoff berth.
“That was the whole game plan — to get a couple touchdowns lead on them and get them out of their comfort zone,” Hicks said. “That was our plan and we succeeded.”
Leading Tunica’s offense in rushing were Freeman Gray with 26 carries for 169 yards and a touchdown; Brandon Holmes with 17 yards on two carries, including a touchdown; Blake Perry with 16 yards on two carries; and Stephen Gray with 7 yards on two carries.
In passing, Holmes completed five of eight passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. Stephen Gray had two receptions for 36 yards, while older brother Freeman Gray hauled in one pass for 10 yards.
Austin Hagstrom and Caleb McCoy also caught a pass each while picking up 20 and 6 yards, respectively.
Kirk was successful on three of four PAT attempts on the night.
Defensively, Freeman Gray led the team with 12 solo tackles, followed by Stephen Gray with 10 tackles. Other TA defenders with stops include: Tyler Billingsley and Chris Manues, each with 6 tackles (Manues, 2 tackles for loss); Taylor Hale, 5 tackles, including 2 sacks; Blake Perry, 5 tackles; William Gibson and Taylor Hagstrom, each with 4 tackles; and Caleb McCoy and Jake Graves with 3 tackles each. McCoy also had an interception, while Graves recorded two picks, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
For his efforts, Hicks recognized Graves as the Tunica Academy Player of the Week.
He also offered accolades to Holmes for his leadership at the quarterback position.
“Brandon really has matured. His confidence level has improved this season and he’s reading the defense really well,” Hicks noted. “He’s made some big throws and he’s had some really big runs that have helped make our team go. He’s evolved and become a big time leader for our team.”
The Blue Devils will have to rely on Holmes and its other team leaders when it travels to Flora, Miss., on Friday for a repeat matchup against North State foe Tri-County Academy. Tunica defeated Tri-County last season 48-42 to win the North A State Championship.
“I know we’ve been battle tested and we’ll be tested again Friday,” Hicks said. They’re just as good as we are, but we’re going to go there to compete. It’ll be a good game.”
Kickoff for Friday’s North A playoff game will be at 7 p.m.