MURFREESBORO — Alcoa coach Gary Rankin knew the Tornadoes were facing an uphill battle in their season opener at Blackman.
The Blaze are a Class 6A powerhouse that boasts a roster twice the size of Alcoa’s. On Rankin’s mind was whether his team had the maturity to handle such a tough test on the road.
Rankin got his answer Saturday night.
The Tornadoes overcame an 11-point deficit to down Blackman, 23-14, extending their season-opening winning streak to 13 games.
“I was worried about how mature we were coming into an environment like this, playing a team like this,” Rankin said. “They grew up tonight, that’s for sure.”
Alcoa and Blackman had never played, and the matchup marked Rankin’s first meeting with a Murfreesboro team since he left Riverdale to fill the vacancy left by John Reid’s departure at Alcoa following the Tornadoes’ 2005 state title season.
Junior J.R. Jones saved the day for the Tornadoes twice. After the Blackman grabbed a 14-3 lead with 19 seconds left in the half, Jones returned the ensuing kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown to spark Alcoa’s comeback entering halftime.
Rankin called Jones the player of the game.
“When they first kicked it off, I lost it in the air and then it just fell into my arms,” Jones said. “Then there was a big seam and I just hit it and took off. It just changed the whole game for us. It gave us hope and motivation to keep going. Don’t break.”
The Tornadoes rode that momentum into the second half and scored on their opening drive of the third quarter to take the lead for good. Jones came up in a big again with four minutes remaining when he intercepted Blackman, virtually sealing the win.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence anyway,” Rankin said. “But anytime you come into a place like this and win your first game, it’s good for you.”
Jones wasn’t the only junior who stepped up at key points of the game. With Alcoa leading 16-14 with 8:35 left, junior quarterback Sam Vaulton connected with junior Tristen Blankenship for 15 yards on the right edge of the end zone. Blankenship jumped for the ball and kept a foot in bounds.
“I saw the ball coming, I saw the lights in the background, and I went up and caught it,” Blankenship said. “I just tried to put my foot down as close as I could. … It’s a great feeling.”
It wasn’t all pretty for the Tornadoes. They struggled in the first half to capitalize on opportunities. Caden Tollett intercepted Blackman on its first drive, giving Alcoa the ball at the Blaze’s 41. After a 28-yard run by Jones, the Tornadoes looked poised score four minutes into the game.
A fumble thwarted that chance and gave Blackman the ball at its own 15.
On the first play of Alcoa’s next drive, Vaulton connected with Brayden Anderson for 23 yards to put the Tornadoes inside Blackman’s 30. They stalled on offense, and they walked away empty-handed following a missed 42-yard field goal attempt by Zeke Rankin.
“In the first half, we didn’t score when we had some opportunities,” Gary Rankin said. “That was discouraging, but our kids hung in there and they kept fighting.”
Alcoa returned to the red zone early in the second quarter after Vaulton found Anderson downfield again — this time for 45 yards. Facing first-and-goal on the 10, the Tornadoes once again couldn’t find the end zone. They settled for a 21-yard field goal by Rankin for a 3-0 edge with 9:25 left in the half.
At that point, Keionte Newson gave the Blaze the spark they needed when Drew Beam targeted the wide receiver at midfield. Alcoa was there to get a hand on the pass, popping the ball up for grabs. Newson snagged it back, preventing an interception and giving Blackman a first down at its own 37.
Andrew Malone finished the job on the following play, breaking loose for a 63-yard rushing touchdown to put the Blaze on top 7-3 with 7:50 left in the half. They added another touchdown with 19.4 seconds left in the half when Newson capped a 91-yard drive with a one-yard plunge into the end zone.
It seemed like Blackman would ride that momentum into halftime, but Jones had other plans. After a failed two-point conversion, Alcoa entered halftime trailing, 14-9.
“The kickoff return got us back in the game and got our kids back excited again,” Rankin said. “He made the play of the game — there’s no doubt.”
With 9:31 left in the third quarter, Vaulton scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 5-yard run.
“We stuck together,” Jones said. “Just go hard in practice and it will show up in the game. We didn’t win this tonight. We won this in the summertime.”