The Purple Devils couldn’t hold down one of the most powerful offenses in the state on any level for an entire game and lost to their hosts in the Class 1A state semifinals 35-14, falling one game short of their first trip to the Super Six.
Instead, it will be the Red Raiders (13-1) who will play Linden Thursday in Tuscaloosa for their first title since 1973, when they completed a run of three straight.
Ragland (13-1) did hold its hosts more than 100 yards below a season average that has them on pace to set the single-season state record for total offense and did lead the game twice, but Marion County pounded out more than 300 yards rushing and scored the final four touchdowns of the game.
The Red Raiders didn’t throw a pass in the second half.
“Physically, they were better than us,” Ragland coach Brian Mintz said. “They were moving the line of scrimmage and anytime that happens you’re playing from behind. We just played behind the chains on offense the whole time and on defense every time we seemed like we got something stopped they’d hit us with something else.
“When you get out there amongst their kids you could tell they were bigger and stronger. I could see that on film as the week wore on and that was a concern of mine. It made it really difficult to go on offense and on defense it was kind of choosing your poison. If you were going to stop the middle play, you were going to give up the outside play.”
The Red Raiders added a fourth member to the 1,000-yard rushing club that is their backfield Friday. All four had at least 65 yards in the game. Justin Sanderson led the charge with 155 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, while quarterback Sean Wallace rushed for 69 yards and two scores and DeShawn Riebeschl and Dorryl Swannigan — the newest 1,000-yard rusher — ran for 65 and 69 yards, respectively. Sanderson now has 1,448 yards rushing on the season and Riebeschl went over 1,250 in the game.
“They were good, but you don’t make it to the fourth round of the state if you’re not good,” Ragland two-way lineman Cole Bearden said. “It was an intense ball game. They got after us more than we got after them.
“(Sanderson), he’s a big kid, real thick. Him and that quarterback, they ran that mid-line real good. They’re two who are put together for that offense.”
The Purple Devils had some success with Marion County early, thanks to a miscue by the Red Raider special teams on fourth down. On a fourth down punt attempt, the snap from center went over punter Jacob Gann’s head and he was sacked at the Marion County 26-yard line.
They scored on their first play from scrimmage when Nicholas Daniels broke off a 26-yard run for the game’s first touchdown.
The Red Raiders tied it on Sanderson’s first touchdown, a 5-yard run with 1:44 left in the first quarter.
Ragland regained the lead on the first play of the second quarter when Jimmy Brock separated himself from the secondary and Scotty Smith hit him with a 60-yard touchdown pass.
Marion County re-tied the game three plays later when Wallace broke out of a pileup in the middle for a 35-yard touchdown, one of eight gains it had of 17 yards or more. The Red Raiders took the lead for good midway through the quarter on a 1-yard run by Wallace.
After a scoreless third quarter, Marion County tacked on an 11-yard score by Swannigan and a 9-yard run by Sanderson.
The Red Raiders went into the game averaging 474.6 yards per game, but they go into the state title game trailing Sumter’s 1997 state record by six-tenths of a yard (466.8 to 466.2). They need just 208 yards to break Cordova’s state record for total yards set in 2008.
“We’re a running football team, this is what we do, and we’ve got the ability to hit it every spot on the field,” Marion County coach Rusty Funk said. “Our motto is don’t do anything to lose yardage. We’re always moving forward. As long as we’re moving forward, we can move the chains.”
The Red Raiders finished the game with 330 rushing yards.
Ragland rushed for 131 yards and Smith threw for another 115 yards giving the Purple Devils 246 total yards. Smith was 6-of-21 passing and also threw three picks.
Al Muskewitz is a sports writer for The Anniston Star.