By John Balch
The Murfreesboro Rattlers gave the Earle Bulldogs a run for their playoff money Friday night, but came up short in a 52-42 battle that capped the 2016 season.
The Rattlers finished the season with an 8-4 record while the 8-3 Bulldogs advanced to Round 3 at England the day after Thanksgiving.
Friday night’s battle played out on a cold and windy Holloway Field and involved 1,065 yards of offense – Rattlers 468, Bulldogs 597 – and the home team leaving it all on the home field.
Murfreesboro set the tone early when they covered 54 yards in first three plays of the game and scored in just over one minute after the opening bell. Gavin Gardner carried the Rattlers deep into Bulldogs territory and then quarterback Ryan Roberts bowled in from five yards out. Gardner got in for the two-point play and a quick 8-0 lead.
The Rattler defense quickly turned out the Bulldogs, but the offense fumbled the ball away six plays into the next drive to set Earle up at their own 29. The Bulldogs reset the game’s tone on the next drive and quarterback Gerry Bohanon and runner Trevon Reel steered Earle into Rattler territory. The drive appeared stalled with a dropped pass and Rattler Scott Evans’ quarterback sack for a loss at the 34 to set up a fourth-and-33. But, Earle was able to convert the long distance and easily scored on the next play. The two-point conversion set the score at 8-8.
The Rattlers’ next possession moved quickly again and gained the Earle 19 in chunks from Roberts and Gardner. The Bulldogs were able to stop the drive nine plays in and took over after a fourth-and-short as the end of the first quarter neared.
Earle’s offense started to work in the pass and the next drive covered 84 yards in nine plays to go up 14-8 with 9:08 left in the first half.
Rattler return man Gardner, who had 452 all-purpose yards for the game, immediately gave Murfreesboro the lead back with an 83-yard touchdown return, and then ran in the two-point conversion.
Trailing 16-14, the Bulldogs responded with a hurry-up drive good for 52 yards and a 22-16 lead with 7:24 left in the half.
After two Rattler possessions and a time-consuming 10-play Bulldog drive that was turned back at the Rattler 12, Earle took possession 52-yards out with 1:14 left in the half and passed to the endzone in five plays. The two-point pass improved the Bulldog lead to 30-16 at the half.
The second half opened with a Bulldog drive that covered 55 yards in seven plays for a 36-16 lead. The Rattlers followed with a six-play drive that turned into points when Roberts found J.C. Motley for an 11-yard touchdown pass and Gardner ran for two.
The next Bulldog score came on a fumbled snap which drew up the defense and was picked up by QB Bohanon who found his receiver all alone for the score and a 44-22 lead.
The Rattlers stayed close with a long drive aided by passes and Bulldog penalties to reach the Bulldog 20 where they faced a fourth down. Roberts hit Motley to convert and two plays later Roberts scored with 2:25 left in the third quarter.
The Rattler defense let the Bulldogs back on their turf but didn’t bite when another fumbled snap was picked up and passed. Rattler defender Troy Stone intercepted the pass to set Murfreesboro up at their own 26 as the fourth quarter began.
The Rattlers quickly covered the needed yardage and Roberts scored from five yards out and added the two-point run with 9:23 left in the game. The Rattler defense kept the Bulldog lead at 44-36 and forced a punt but the offense was turned back on a pass play that fell short at the Bulldog 3 with 4:20 left in the game.
The Bulldogs ground out the 97 yards in seven plays to further their lead, 52-36, with 1:05 left in the game.
The last Rattler drive of the season started at the 41 and went down to the last seconds and included some trick plays that earned Bulldog territory. Roberts hit Motley for a four-yard TD to cap the drive and set the final score at 52-42 with 4.1 seconds left in the game.
Roberts hit 14 of 23 passes for 252 yards and two touchdowns and Motley hit one pass for 13 yards for a 265 total. Gardner led the Rattler receivers with five catches for 171 yards, followed by Motley with six for 51 yards and two TDs and Stone with three for 30 yards. Roberts also had a 13-yard reception.
Gardner was the Rattlers’ top ground-gainer with 23 carries for 157 yards followed by Roberts with 17 carries for 43 yards and two TDs.
The Rattler tackle chart was topped by Scott Evans, Chris French, Zayne Flaherty, Tyler Tomlinson, Gardner, Roberts and Motley.
Earle was led by Bohanon who rushed for 120 yards and hit 11 of 20 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns. Reel carried 24 times for 158 yards and one TD. Jaquez Gray had sevent carries for 89 yards and one TD. Ojoshua Bunton led the Bulldog receivers with six catches for 151 yards and all three of Bohanon’s TD passes.
The 2016 season saw the Rattlers finish as co-champions of District 7-2A with the Mount Ida Lions. The district title was the first for the Rattlers since their outright district title in 2009. The season included upsets of a 62-35 upset of the Foreman Gators and a last-second 26-20 win over the Dierks Outlaws to secure the co-championship. The Rattlers also posted wins over Magazine (34-6), Lafayette County (28-26), Mineral Springs (60-36), Spring Hill (54-14), Lavaca (38-30) in Round 1 of the playoffs and a forfeit win over Mountain Pine.
The Rattler other losses this year came at the hands of Horatio (49-8), Hampton (67-14) and Mount Ida (50-20).