SELMA – It had been billed as a matchup of opposing receivers and defensive backs, but Macon East had the upper hand from the opening whistle, winning for the first time in six attempts at Morgan Academy by turning back the Senators 35-14 in the first round of the Alabama Independent School Association Class AAA state playoffs on Friday night.
The Senators had won nine of their last 10 games and were 5-0 at home this season, but Tucker Neven completed 18 of 31 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns as the Knights pulled away in the second half for a surprisingly easy victory.
“In the first half, we had a lot of snaps dropped and (Neven) didn’t play exactly like he wanted to,” Macon East coach Glynn Lott said. “He was frustrated. At halftime I said, hey, you had a bad first half, just have a great second half. He did. He found some receivers and our offensive line did an outstanding job protecting him.”
Neven hit Ethan Honaker with a touchdown pass four plays into the game, found Brock Taunton for a momentum-swinging touchdown just before the half and connected with JC Ceman late in the third quarter after the Senators tried to rally moments earlier.
“We knew we had some good matchups,” Neven said. “I threw them the ball and they went and made plays and that’s how we won.”
Macon East (9-2) extended its winning streak to four games, dating back to a 49-28 loss at Monroe Academy on Oct. 4. The Knights return to Monroeville to play the defending AAA state champions (11-0) on Friday, with the winner advancing to the AAA state championship game on Nov. 16 in Troy at 7 p.m.
“We had a bunch of mistakes (in the regular-season matchup with Monroe),” Honaker said. “We had three turnovers in the first quarter. We moved the ball pretty well and got it down to a one-score game, but if we go in there and do our job and we have a week of focus, I feel like we’re going to have a pretty good game and a pretty good matchup.”
Morgan Academy ends the season at 9-3, the Senators’ most successful season since finishing 12-1 and winning the AAA championship in 2005.
Macon East fired out quickly with an 18-yard reception by Honaker on the second play of the game and a 47-yard touchdown reception two plays later for a 6-0 lead.
“He’s played a good game the last four or five games because people were trying to take JC and Brock away,” Lott said. “We felt like they were going to do that early and we got the mismatch and felt like we could get him open early.”
Morgan would respond with a 29-yard touchdown run by Dione Allen just two minutes later, but the Senators would manage just seven first downs the remainder of the game, with three of them coming on a flurry of third-quarter plays that resulted in Morgan’s second touchdown.
“They’ve played great all year,” Lott said of his defense. “We made a couple of adjustments at halftime. They hurt us in the ‘empty’ (no running back) set some and we brought some linebackers when they were 100 percent pass and they got us on the screen some and we had to make an adjustment on that. Our secondary did a great job of shutting their receivers down.”
Honaker led the Macon East defense with seven tackles as the Knights held Morgan to 106 total yards over the final three quarters.
“Over the week, we practiced mainly to stop their pass,” Honaker said. “They’ve got three really good receivers and we’ve got a good front seven so we thought we’d be able to stop their run but they came out and threw some new stuff at us. Coach (Bob) Pickett made some adjustments. We found out when they move the ‘bunch’ guy over, he’s ineligible and we started coming off the edge and we just shut them down after that.”
Still, it wasn’t until the final drive of the second quarter that Macon East began to take charge. Taking over at his 48 following a punt with 1:44 remaining, Neven was sacked on first down but came back with a 31-yard pass to Taunton, a 12-yard strike over the middle to Ceman and an 18-yard touchdown pass to Taunton with 17 seconds left for a 12-6 halftime lead.
“That was huge,” Neven said. “That’s what got us momentum heading into the second half. It got us fired up and we just took it from there.”
Taunton finished with 130 receiving yards on six receptions.
“He makes plays,” Lott said. “Brock’s been playing on the playground forever and that’s what he does on the field. It’s a playground. He can make adjustments and he comes to the sidelines with different ideas. He’s frustrating sometimes, but at the same time you want him out there playing every play.”
The Knights scored on their first three possessions of the second half, using a 21-yard field goal by Jake Gracey, a 1-yard run by Neven and a 30-yard pass to Ceman to open up a lead.
“We knew they had three good receivers who were playing both sides of the ball and were playing DB and it was going to be a challenge and harder than we’ve had all year,” Honaker said. “But in Brock and JC, we’ve got two of the best receivers in AISA and they just go out and make catches. I was thankful to make a couple of catches myself, but we’ve got a good quarterback that gets us the ball and our linemen did a heck of a job blocking for us tonight.”
Kenny Owens had 104 of his 129 rushing yards in the second half, including a 1-yard scoring run, to finish off the Senators and set up a rematch with Monroe.
“I’ve got a bunch of good friends from Monroe,” Neven said. “They’re good, they’ve got great players. We’re going to have to come in and prepare all week and go play our hearts out.”
AISA SEMIFINAL PAIRINGS
Glenwood School (5-6) at Bessemer Academy (8-3)
Macon East Academy (9-2) at Monroe Academy (11-0)
South Choctaw Academy (8-4) at Autauga Academy (10-1)
Edgewood Academy (8-3) at Escambia Academy (9-2)
Wilcox Academy (8-3) at Chambers Academy (11-0)
Southern Academy (8-2) at Crenshaw Christian Academy (10-1)