Never, ever try to get cute against John Curtis.
University High did so Thursday and paid a game-changing price in its 32-0 loss to the Patriots in the Division II select state championship game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The previously undefeated Cubs, making their first title-game appearance in 23 years, played the perennial powerhouse Patriots, making their 18th straight Prep Classic appearance, to a scoreless standstill midway through the second quarter when they faced fourth-and-1 from the Curtis 44.
On two previous occasions, U-High had gone for it without success in long yardage situations from the Patriots’ 26 and 22. But this time, a team that averaged 44.5 points and had a 2,000-yard rusher in junior Nick Brossette (an LSU commitment) lined up in punt formation.
That yielded an unbalanced formation on the right side. A short snap went to kicker Chandler Johnson, who threw across the middle to Jake Alexander — only to see it go through his hands.
Five plays later, Curtis had its first touchdown: Raekwon James springing loose from the 34.
A 13-yard TD by James on a screen pass from Abby Touzet on the final play of the half following an interception by Hunter Dale made it 13-0 and, for all intents and purposes, the second half was about how wide the final margin of victory would be and whether the Patriots (10-2) could pitch a shutout en route to their third straight state title.
“We’d practiced that play all season but never used it,” Cubs coach Chad Mahaffey said. “We thought it had a good chance of succeeding. But in a game against a team like John Curtis, you don’t have a big margin for error.”
Especially when the Patriots have probably seen every variation of trick plays.
“We work on that kind of formation or something like it every week,” said coach J.T. Curtis, whose teams have now won 26 state titles. “So it really didn’t take us by surprise.”
In the long run, the play likely would not have changed the final outcome.
Curtis’ defense grew more dominant as the game went along, allowing just 81 yards and seven first downs in the second half after U-High had 134 and eight in the first — all before the failed fake punt.
Brossette had 120 yards, but it took him 27 carries to get them. The Cubs had just 19 other plays from scrimmage.
“Our main goal was to stop the run,” said Curtis senior linebacker Kenny Young, whose 13 tackles earned him Player of the Game honors for the winners. “The first couple of series, they moved the ball on us pretty well, and Brossette got his yards on us because he’s a great back. But we shut them out, and that’s how you win championships.”
The Curtis offense took a while to get going but eventually did its job as well.
After some early missteps, including a pass thrown by Myles Washington that was intercepted by U-High’s Bennett Lowery at the Cubs’ 27, the Patriots got their running game going. They used Jones off-tackle as Brad Frazier on the right and Willy Allen on the left consistently sealed off defenders along with an overpowering middle attack behind center Tim Luwe and guards Brent Ruiz and Kirklynn Breham.
After netting just 41 rushing yards in the first quarter, the Patriots added 313 over the next three. James’ 97 yards set the pace on a day when four Curtis runners had at least 62.
In the third quarter, the Patriots added to their lead on Washington’s 1-yard run after a bad punt snap set them up at the U-High 3. They pulled away in the fourth period with a 60-yard drive capped by George Moreira’s 1-yard run and a 79-yarder by sophomore Tyrone Chevalier.
“They make it easy for you,” James said. “You just have to go where the holes are.”
Brossette acknowledged the difficulty of going against a defense as talented as Curtis’.
“They’re always going to have a lot great players,” he said “We had some things going there at first, but we couldn’t keep it up.”
Mahaffey acknowledged it was a frustrating night.
“Obviously it didn’t end the way we wanted it to,” he said. “We tried to make some adjustments in the second half, but that’s tough to do against a team like the one we were playing tonight. The thing I’m proud of most is that we kept battling to the end.”
Curtis, who celebrated his 67th birthday last week and now has 530 victories in his 45 seasons at the school his father founded, always makes a point to say that every championship is special in its own right.
For this one, the team overcame the death of a player in the spring while a longtime assistant coach was sidelined with cancer. And on the field, there were two rare losses in the regular season.
But in the playoffs, truncated to three games because of the select/nonselect split, the Patriots outscored foes 120-6.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a team go though as much, at least early in the season,” he said. “But they hung together all year. After the loss to St. Thomas Aquinas, Dale told the team they had to put everything behind them because we knew we’d face games like we had tonight. This team has been a total pleasure to coach.”