Coach Bobby Alston had a simple answer when asked what he thought was the key for his Memphis University School team in the state championship game against Ensworth.
“Tackle Corn Elder,” he said, referring to the Tigers’ two-time Mr. Football winner and all-state tailback. “He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, and if we don’t do a good enough job in that respect, we’ll be in for a long night.”
Ensworth (12-0), which moved up to No. 10 in this week’s USA Today Super 25 prep rankings, seeks its third straight Division II-AA championship when it faces MUS (10-2), 7 p.m. Thursday at Tennessee Tech.
The Tigers have won 20 straight games. Their last setback was to Chattanooga Baylor in mid-2011, a loss they avenged in last year’s championship game, 48-10. They have also won eight straight playoff games since 2009.
“They have been the best team around for the last two years, they have great coaches, great athletes and a great system,” Alston said.
MUS has won seven straight this season and the teams have combined to win the last four DII-AA state titles.
Plus, Alston and Ensworth coach Ricky Bowers have a long friendship.
“When we had that first meeting at the TSSAA about the split [into two divisions] in 1995, we were the only ones in the room on the DII side,” Bowers said. “I’ve said many times that for the last couple of decades, MUS has the best football program in the state. They play the best competition, they go to Mississippi, Arkansas, all over, to play great teams.”
Ensworth and MUS already have played each other in 2012.
The title game is a rematch of the season opener back on Aug. 17, when Ensworth won 35-28. That day Elder scored four touchdowns, three in the third quarter, and the Tigers held off an Owls’ rally. MUS’ only other loss was out of state to Olive Branch, Miss., 43-33.
MUS, which won in 2008 and 2009 and has four titles overall, has a Mr. Football finalist of its own in senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers, who passed for 385 yards and three touchdowns against Ensworth in the first game. The Owls outgained Tigers 387-333 in that one.
“Jordan is just a great leader,” Alston said. “He got hurt his junior year and missed almost the entire season. He’s returned and has had a great senior year.”
Ensworth has some senior leaders of its own.
Besides Elder and quarterback Andrew Bowers, the Tigers also have some players like Justin Lloyd and Brennan Washington, both seniors, who aren’t in the spotlight as much as their more heralded teammates.
“All those guys bring something to the table for us,” Bowers said. “To be successful, you have to have guys like that, who put the team ahead of themselves.
“I like how our team has improved each week. They have developed the kind of knowledge, experience and confidence which has grown each game.”
Lloyd is a backup kick returner, plays defensive back, running back and wide receiver and is a key factor on the Tiger defense. Washington is an excellent linebacker and fullback.
“I just want the opportunity to take care of my job and show leadership, especially this being my senior year,” the rugged 5-foot-9, 195-pound Washington said. “A lot of people might think we’d be jealous because of all the publicity Corn gets with his rushing stats. But it’s not like that for us. As a fullback, I love to block for him. Then if goes for a 65-yard touchdown, we all share in that success, as if we scored ourselves.”
Said Lloyd: “I just play my best and do what I’m needed to do. It’s very important for me to do that my senior year, we’ve worked so hard this season to get to this point to be the best we can be.
“This is the best overall team I’ve played on since I’ve been here. With a guy like Corn, we have someone who can break one at any time.”
BlueCross TSSAA State football championships
(at Tennessee Tech, Cookeville)
(Note: Tennessee Public Television Council network stations, including WNPT-TV (Channel 8, HD Channel 1008) in Nashville, will televise all of the games live.)
DII-A: Knoxville Webb (10-1) vs. Evangelical Christian (6-6), 3 p.m.
DII-AA: Ensworth (12-0) vs. Memphis University School (10-2), 7 p.m.
Class 1A: Gordonsville (12-1) vs. Huntingdon (12-2), 11 a.m.
Class 3A: Christian Academy of Knoxville (13-1) vs. Milan (12-2), 3 p.m.
Class 5A: Columbia (12-2) vs. Beech (14-0), 7 p.m.
Class 2A: Friendship Christian (12-1) vs. Adamsville (12-1), 11 a.m.
Class 4A: Fulton (12-2) vs. Covington (14-0), 3 p.m.
Class 6A: Maryville (14-0) vs. Whitehaven (14-0), 7 p.m.