Wildcats slow down RB in second half

SEARCY -- For every yard Jalen Dupree earned Friday night, he was met with two red-and-white jerseys.

After a first half that saw Malvern's senior running back gash the Harding Academy defense, the second half came with a loaded box and its quarterback scrambling on every play.

Harding Academy defeated Malvern 58-34 at First Security Field in the second round of the Class 4A state playoffs.

The game was a rematch of last season's state championship game which the Leopards won 64-39 thanks to a historic performance from Dupree.

"I think all week everybody's kind of talked about the whole idea of revenge or whatever, and I think that's fun for the fans to talk about, but more than anything, we beat a really good opponent in the second round," Harding Academy Coach Neil Evans said. "... That's what I'm most proud of is the significance of getting to continue to play and practice on Thanksgiving."

Through the first two quarters Friday night, it looked as though Dupree may repeat that performance.

Dupree rushed 12 times for 149 yards and two touchdowns before the break. He broke rushes of 69, 32 and 14 yards.

But the Harding Academy (12-0) set the pace from the start, forcing Dupree and Malvern (7-4) to keep pace.

Harding Academy scored less than two minutes into the game on a 25-yard pass from quarterback Owen Miller to Isaac Baker. A Griffin Thomas field goal and a Wyatt Simmons rushing touchdown gave the Wildcats a 17-7 lead while the Leopards scored on a 47-yard pass to Dyelon Caradine.

Trenton Hall scored from 2 yards out to extend the Wildcats' lead before Dupree's 2-yard score made it 24-21 at the break.

In the first half, Harding Academy started with a five-man defensive front to focus on Dupree. But after the Leopards played most of the half with one, and sometimes two tight ends, the Wildcats played nearly the entire second half with four down lineman flanked by two edge rushers.

That adjustment, among others, was the result of an offseason's worth of work on defensive alignments against run-first teams with the title game loss to Malvern being the best example of what to improve on.

"We spent a lot of time in the offseason trying to tweak what we do, make some adjustments to some different things to where we can match up a little bit better schematically," Evans said. "One of the things we did take from the game last year [was], they gave us some sets and some personnel groupings that were problematic. Last year, we were frustrated with how we fit some stuff."

Miller and Baker connected on a 15-yard touchdown pass midway through the third quarter and shortly after that, Miller rushed for a 4-yard score to make it 36-21.

While it was adding to the lead, Harding Academy held Malvern scoreless before Dupree and some starters sat the final few minutes. Dupree was held to 23 yards on nine carries after the break.

Because of that, Malvern was forced to put the ball in the hands of quarterback Bishop Allen. The sophomore completed 10-of-23 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown. But in the second half, he was intercepted twice.

"We got down two scores pretty quick, and we had to kind of open up a little bit more," Malvern Coach JD Plumlee said. "... Knowing that we've got to match their scores kind of takes you out of what you want to do."

To start the fourth quarter, the Wildcats blew the game open with three quick scores. Miller hit Kyler Hoover for a 55-yard touchdown strike 47 seconds into the quarter, Brody Myers returned an interception for a touchdown on Malvern's next possession and Miller scored on a 4-yard run to make it 58-21 with 8:09 remaining.

Miller was the star of Harding Academy's show. He completed 16-of-18 passes for 237 yards, rushed for 124 yards on 16 carries and totaled five touchdowns. On top of his rushing numbers, Miller also extended multiple plays with his legs. He also played cornerback occasionally, defending Caradine one-on-one. Caradine's first touchdown came against Miller, but the latter broke up two key passes in the first half.

"He's fun to watch," Plumlee said. "My son's 14-years-old, our ball boy, I told him 'Watch him play all night long.'

"This time of year, your best 11 better be on the field."

Caradine scored a 69-yard touchdown and Dupree's backup, Tavien Clegg, scored from 23 yards late in the fourth quarter to make it 58-34.

"We faced a lot of teams this year, and I've seen a lot of film, and I'm not sure that anybody can beat [Harding Academy] if they stay healthy," Plumlee said. "I mean, they're good at almost every spot, it's hard to find a hole against them. They're well coached and they play extremely hard. But, you know, I'm proud of our guys and the fight we had. It just wasn't our night."