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Tigers get off to another quick start

By By RANDY WINTON Sports Writer
As Friday night's high school foootball season opener got under way for the T.R. Miller Tigers, it did so with more question marks than returning starters.
Gone from a 12-2 campaign in 2003 were 19 seniors who had won two state championships and made it to the semifinals twice in their their four years. Gone was an offensive unit that clicked on all cylinders and scored a school record 556 points. Gone were the 1,583 passing yards by quarterback Brad Lannom and the combined 1,763 rushing yards of Skylar Fountain and Michael Jones.
With so many new faces on the field Friday night, few really knew what to expect. Yet when it was all said and done, the state's top-ranked team in Class 3A came out and began the quest to make its own name and introduced themselves to the Tigers faithful in a memorable way.
Picking up a cue from their predecessors, the Tigers depended on a swarming defense early and then used a text-book drive on the second half's opening possession en route to a decisive 42-6 win over the Ecambia County Blue Devils at Atmore. It was the sixth straight season-opening victory for the Tigers and the 11th straight over the Blue Devils.
Tigers coach Jamie Riggs got what he pretty much expected, which is to say first and foremost, his team won. In the meantime, they got some much needed game experience on the field.
"We're young," said Riggs, who won his 175th game at T.R. Miller and 187th overall. "I expected them to make some mistakes tonight, but we got a chance to learn some things. It's important when you're as inexperienced as we are, especially on offense, to just get out there and play. We had a game plan suited to our players and it gave them a chance to be successful in their first game. It's about what I expected because we did some good things in all three areas of the game."
On the defensive side, the Tigers benefitted from three blocked punts, two interceptions and two defensive touchdowns. They also rose up for a classic third quarter goal line line that slammed the door on an Escambia County team that depends on big plays.
On the offensive side where nine different backs touched the ball, a picture-perfect drive to start the second half sparked a 28-point third quarter and bolstered a 14-6 halftime lead into a 42-6 advantage. Junior Antonio Gomez led all Tiger rushers with 59 yards on eight carries with one touchdown. T.R. Miller gained 200 yards overall.
The strong leg of sophomore Baxley Raines, who hit all five of his point after attempts and had consistently deep kickoffs, helped the kicking game.
"We executed pretty well at times in all areas, but there is a lot of room for improvement," Riggs said. "Still, it was about what we expected for a first game with so many new starters. I'm proud of them for a lot of things, but I'm especially proud of their work ethic coming in and the way they played hard on every down. We can certainly build on that."
It was the defense that sparked an early lead. After T.R. Miller punted on its first possession, Nykeem Barton recovered a Blue Devils' fumble at the Escambia County 19-yard line. Five plays later on a second-and-goal from the three, Barton fumbled into the endzone where junior lineman Justin Marshall alertly pounced on it for the game's first touchdown. Raines' PAT made it 7-0 with 3:18 left in the first quarter.
Just four plays later, defensive lineman Julius Harris got into the scoring act. Marshall benefitted on a big hit by Mikel Riggs, which separated the ball from the punter, as he tried to tuck and run after a bad snap. The ensuing fumble was scooped up by Harris, who rumbled seven yards for the score. Raines made it 14-0 with his kick.
The Tigers' offense began its first possession of the second quarter after the second blocked punt of an Escambia Countypunt. T.R. Miller, which started from the Blue Devils' 24-yard line, converted a fourth-and-two with a six-yard run by Barton. On a first-and-goal from the nine, a holding penalty backed the Tigers up to the 19.
While T.R. Miller had a chance to go up 21-0, first-year starting quarterback Jordan Cauley had a touchdown pass dropped on first down. Cauley then appeared to throw another touchdown pass on third down, but it was negated with an inadvertent whistle.
After the Tigers missed a field goal attempt of 35 yards, Escambia County's big play offense struck. On third-and-one from the Blue Devils' 29, quarterback Calvin Hartley found Chris Andrews behind the T.R. Miller defense and connected with him for a 71-yard touchdown that cut the lead to 14-6 with just over four minutes to play in the half. The Blue Devils came up short on a two-point conversion pass.
That set up what would be the defining moment of the game. Reminiscent of last year's contest where Antonio Gomez broke open a tight game with a second half kickoff return for a touchdown, the Tigers utilized their first possession of the third quarter to break this one open.
Without the benefit of a pass, T.R. Miller bulled its way downfield and culmintaed a nine-play, 66-yard drive with a five-yard touchdown run by Antonio Gomez to make it 21-6.
From there, the bottom fell out for Escambia County. The Blue Devils watched helplessly as the Tigers took advantage of successive turnovers. After Michael Mashburn recovered a fumble at the Blue Devils' seven-yard line, Barton bulled in for a touchdown one play later. Later Rodney Lane intercepted a tipped pass and took it 33 yards for another touchdown that opened the lead up to 35-6.
T.R. Miller put the final touches on its win after the aforementioned goal line stand. Cauley threw a perfect deep out pass to senior wideout Jacob Salter, who caught the ball in stride and outran the defenders for a 72-yard score.
"It gave us something to work on," Riggs said. "As we look toward our region schedule, especially next week at Straughn, we know where we need to focus our attention. We're going to get better and if we keep working hard, we'll get there."
The Tigers will open up the Class 3A Region 1 season Friday when they travel to Straughn for a 7:30 p.m. game. Straughn blanked Andalusia 10-0 in its season opener Thursday.
At Escambia County
T.R. Miller 14 0 28 0 – 42
Escambia County 0 6 0 0 – 6
T.R. MILLER- Marshall 3 yard fumble recovery return (Raines kick)
T.R. MILLER- Harris 7 yard fumble recovery return (Raines kick)
ESCAMBIA COUNTY- Andrews 71 yard pass from Hartley (pass failed)
T.R. MILLER- A. Gomez 5 yard run (Raines kick)
T.R. MILLER- Barton 7 yard run (Raines kick)
T.R. MILLER- Lane 33 yard interception return (Raines kick)
T.R. MILLER- Salter 72 yard pass from Cauley (Kirkland kick)
Stats
First downs: T.R. Miller 12, Escambia County 8
Total yards: T.R. Miler 272 (200 rushing, 72 passing), Escambia County 223 (64 rushing, 159 passing)
Individual rushing: T.R. Miller-A. Gomez 8-59 1TD, J. Gomez 2-40, Barton 7-34 1TD, Puryear 3-31, Jones 6-29, Holland 4-21, Raines 1-11, Cauley 1-4, Turner 1-3, Marshall 1-3; Escambia County- McNeil 18-79, Taylor 6-18, Hartley 5-(-16)
Individual passing: T.R. Miller- Cauley 1-6-72 1TD; Escambia County- Hartley 6-11-159 1TD, 1INT
Individual receiving: T.R. Miller- Salter 1-72 1TD; Escambia County- Andrews 3-138 1TD, McNeil 2-1, Green 1-10
See TIGERS Page 7
Punting: T.R. Miller 1-36, 36.0 avg.; Escambia County 3-35, 11.7 avg.
Penalties: T.R. Miller 2-25, Escambia County 3-20