DENTON – With 48 seconds left to play, Melissa quarterback Tate Whittington scampered in for a touchdown from five yards out to lift the Cardinals to a 48-42 season-opening win over Liberty Christian at Denton’s Apogee Stadium.
If mastering momentum shifts is the key to winning, Melissa’s performance was text-book perfect. Liberty Christian had stormed back with four unanswered touchdowns to tie the game at 42-all with five minutes left in regulation after trailing 42-17. Whittington and the Cardinals, after sputtering much of the fourth quarter, answered with a clutch 75-yard, 14-play drive for the game-winning score. Earlier, the Warriors had seen their 10-0 first-quarter lead evaporate under a 21-point Melissa onslaught in the second.
“There were a lot of ups and downs,” said Cardinals head coach Seth Stinton. “It’s basically the tale of momentum. They got some there in the second half and started scoring and we couldn’t execute real well offensively. And we had a couple of penalties that hurt us… Games like that are big for us after the 1-9 season last year. Winning the first one is always a big thing.”
Whittington led all rushers with 154 yards on 25 carries. He also threw for 166 yards, with two touchdown tosses to Joe Ragon and another to Gunnar Murphy. Kaedric Cobbs tallied 117 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries for the Cardinals, while freshman Ja’Bray Young added 89 yards on 11 tries.
All told, Melissa churned out 369 yards on the grounds on 58 attempts. Whittington threw for 166 yards with two picks, both on deflected balls. The Cardinals had to overcome 100-plus yards of penalties en route to the victory.
Liberty Christian was led by quarterback Jon Copeland’s 354 yards of total offense, including 247 through the air. His 55-yard touchdown run, tip-toed down the left sideline, pulled the Warriors to within 42-29 in the fourth quarter, igniting Liberty Christian’s comeback hopes. Elijah Edwards hauled in six catches for 105 yards for the Warriors.
Down early, Melissa got on the board in the second quarter with a Whittington 20-yard touchdown strike to Murphy. After a three-and-out by the Warriors, Cobbs gave the Cardinals their first lead of the season, 14-10, on a 39-yard sprint to the end zone. The teams then traded touchdowns and the lead before halftime, with Whittington’s 15-yard touchdown toss to Ragon pushing the Cardinals’ margin to 21-17. Gabe Rodriguez’ recovery of an onside kick and a Tommy Gallardo interception kept Liberty Christian from responding before the break. Marvin Jordan also killed a Liberty Christian drive with a first-half interception.
Melissa pulled away, 27-17, early in the third quarter with a Whittington-to-Ragon 81-yard scoring bomb on third-and-31. Cardinals defensive lineman Steven Nguyen followed that three plays later with a fumble recovery at the Warriors’ 38-yard-line. Cobbs’ subsequent 29-yard touchdown run gave Melissa a 34-17 lead. Things got worse for Liberty Christian when a deep snap sailed over its punter’s head, recovered in the end zone by a Warrior for a safety.
So what about that game-winning drive, Coach?
“I think our guys just wanted it,” Stinton said. “It was great play calling. Coach [Matt] Nally, our offensive coordinator, did a great job and our kids executed. That was the difference. We didn’t have any penalties to back us up and we executed. We got some big first downs.”
The drive featured 11 rushes - eight by Whittington - and three pass attempts, with one 10-yard completion.
“There at the end,” Stinton half-joked, “when Tate punches it in, I was trying to say, ‘Hey, run the clock a little bit more,’ but we got it done.”
The win was especially sweet for the Cardinals as Liberty Christian shut out Melissa last season, 21-0. “This is the first [win] of many,” Stinton said. “Our guys worked their tail ends off. And they deserved to win, that’s for sure.”
On Friday, Melissa (1-0) travels to face Lake Worth (1-0) in another non-district match-up.
Melissa 0 21 21 6 - 48
Liberty Christian 10 7 6 19 - 42
Liberty Christian - Andre Washington 43 run (Grant Hudgens kick), 5:02
Liberty Christian – Grant Hudgens 25 FG, 2:40
Melissa – Gunnar Murphy 20 pass from Tate Whittington (Jace Ingram kick), 11:27
Melissa – Kaedric Cobbs 39 run (Jace Ingram kick), 9:15
Liberty Christian – Grant Sawyer 9 pass from Jon Copeland (Grant Hudgens kick), 5:39
Melissa – Joe Ragon 15 pass from Tate Whittington (Jace Ingram kick), 0:33
Melissa – Joe Ragon 81 pass from Tate Whittington (run failed), 10:54
Melissa – Kaedric Cobbs 29 run (Jace Ingram kick), 9:02
Melissa – Safety (snap over punter’s head, recovered in end zone), 8:26
Melissa – Kaedric Cobbs 1 run (kick blocked), 4:50
Liberty Christian – Jon Copeland 17 run, (kick failed), 3:27
Liberty Christian – Jon Copeland 55 run (pass failed), 10:03
Liberty Christian – Kade Johnson 9 run (kick failed), 8:02
Liberty Christian – Andre Washington 1 run (Grant Hudgens kick), 5:15
Melissa – Tate Whittington 5 run (kick blocked), 0:48
Melissa Liberty Christian
First downs 26 18
Rushes-yards 58-369 21-173
Passing yards 166 247
C-A-I 9-21-2 17-33-1
Punts-average 4-32.5 3-24.6
Penalties-yards 12-110 4-30
Fumbles-lost 1-1 1-1
Rushing – Melissa: Tate Whittington 25-154, Kaedric Cobbs 15-117, Ja’Bray Young 11-89, Breelyn Armstrong 6-8, Gunnar Murphy 1-1. Liberty Christian: Jon Copeland 12-107, Andre Washington 8-57, Kade Johnson 1-9 .
Passing – Melissa: Tate Whittington 9-21-2-166. Liberty Christian: Jon Copeland 17-33-2-247.
Receiving – Melissa: Joe Ragon 3-105, Gunnar Murphy 3-57, Kaedric Cobbs 2-10, Ja’Bray Young 1-(-6). Liberty Christian: Elijah Edwards 6-105, Andre Washington 4-39, Wilson Strange 3-33, Connor Holzkamper 3-37, Grant Sawyer 2-33.