Friday night lights are back! The limited number of fans inside the Tiger Den were excited and ready to see some football. They welcomed the sound of Tiger announcer Jack Jinkins on Sept. 4 as he announced the captains before the season’s opening kickoff.
The Tigers again opened their season against the Columbia Wildcats. Columbia gave the young Tigers a severe wakeup call last season. The Tigers looked to exact some measure of revenge to start this season but fell short with a final score of 28-46.
All defeats are not the same, however. The Tigers learned a lot about themselves Friday night, and the players gained confidence. As the coaches echoed, the Tigers grew up, and that casts a positive outlook for the remainder of the season. They competed throughout the entire contest, and once shaking the early nerves, the Tigers looked like a team that belongs. There were execution issues on offense early, but after some adjustments they found a rhythm and made it work.
It was a painfully slow start for Mendenhall. On the opening play of the game the Tigers fumbled the snap for a turnover. Their first defensive snap resulted in an opposing touchdown. A pick-6 by Columbia ended the Tigers’ second offensive series, and the Wildcats took a 12-0 lead. Through two series the Tigers look helpless, but as the game progressed the young players began to settle down and play ball.
After being backed against their goal line, the defense netted the first positive play of the game. A short pass was picked off by Walter “No-No” Owens and returned for a touchdown. Penalties would negate the play and see the Tigers take over near midfield. Columbia’s interior defensive linemen were dominating the line of scrimmage which led to Reggie McLaurin struggles. He found little room to run early in the game. Following a punt the defense bowed up and looked for another stop, but a Wildcat screen pass on third and long led to another touchdown. Mendenhall dug themselves into a 0-18 hole to end the first quarter.
DK Jenkins completed a short pass to Jayveon Dampeer that gained 23 yards to start the second quarter. It was the biggest offensive gain by the Tigers of the game at that point, but the drive ultimately ended in another punt. Momentum shifted in the Tigers’ favor following the punt, however. It started after an excellent open field tackle by Marcus Gardner, who came up from the cornerback position to set the edge and make a tackle in the backfield, stopping a jet sweep. Columbia went to the air on the next play and the ball was intercepted by Darius Dampier and returned to the Wildcat 20 yard line.
The energy shifted and DK Jenkins led the offense back onto the field. No-No Owens lined up out wide and ran a fade toward the back of the end zone. Jenkins showed trust and threw a 50-50 ball in his direction. Owens made an unbelievably contested catch to put his team on the board with 6 points.
The defense continued to play strong and began to disrupt the Wildcats, whose next possession ended in an interception by Owens. It was the Tigers’ third interception of the game and second for Owens. To close the second quarter the Tiger offense sped up the tempo and left the Wildcats scrambling to get organized. It resulted in several big plays and a scoring drive that was capped by a 17-yard Reggie McLaurin TD run. Sam Smith caught the 2-point conversion, and the Tigers trimmed the lead to 14-18 heading into halftime.
Momentum carried and a Wildcat turnover to start the second half put the Tigers in position to take the lead, but the offensive struggles returned. A mishandled snap on a punt put the Wildcats in position to score, and they took a 26-14 lead following a successful 2-point conversion. On the next offensive drive the Tigers returned to an up tempo pace.
Conditioning began to play a factor. While several of the Wildcats began to cramp the Tigers were still pushing forward full tilt. Near the goal line the Tigers were able to capitalize and score on a pass to tight end Logan McGuire. The Tigers were in a close game and trailed 20-26.
A revelation at the defensive tackle position came in the form of Pap Feazell, who began dominating the line of scrimmage. He forced the Tigers’ fifth turnover after beating his man and making a booming tackle in the backfield, dislodging the ball, which was recovered by Darius Dampier.
Jenkins returned to the field poised to start the drive. He consistently made the correct read on the option play, gaining positive yards for his team. No-No Owens was having a monster game and it continued. He was matched up in single coverage with no safety help. He beat his man on a post route, and Jenkins delivered the ball on time. Owens made the catch, made his defender fall, and coasted into the end zone to tie the game. After a successful 2-point conversion the Tigers took the lead 28-26.
But he fourth quarter belonged to the Wildcats, who were able to string together enough stops and touchdowns to cruise to a comfortable win. Ultimately the Tigers lost by 18 points, which was the total surrendered after their slow start.
Head Coach Chuckie Allen said, “We were a little timid to start the game and it took 2 or 3 possession for us to realize we can play. We definitely grew up tonight.” Allen was proud of his team’s conditioning and it stood as a testament of the hard work they put in over the summer. He said, “We’re going to continue to get better and hopefully we’ll be healthy. The effort was there, and there was a lot of improvement.”
Defensive Coordinator Derrick Jenkins said, “I am proud of our guys. We came out and fought and believed in ourselves. Our young skill guys were making plays and we had 5 turnovers.” Jenkins believes it was the small attention to detail that cost them in the end, and that can be corrected.