Tonight: the 107th running of the Paducah Tilghman Blue Tornado and Mayfield Cardinals.
It’s the second-longest high school football series in Kentucky, trailing only “The Old Rivalry” between Louisville Male and duPont Manual (played since 1893), and has been annually anticipated since 1911 with few interruptions.
Do the Cardinals hold a 51-46-9 lifetime edge on the Blue Tornado? Or does Paducah Tilghman trail ever-so-slightly in the saga against Mayfield, 47-49-10? This isn’t clear, with early contests hazy of detail and rife in dispute between the schools.
What isn’t in dispute, however, is that the Mayfield Cardinals have considerable momentum against “Big Blue,” having won 14 straight matchups dating back to 2006. Tilghman’s last win against “Big Red” came on Sept. 23, 2005, 18-15 in Paducah.
So, it’s simple. Either Mayfield continues its chokehold on the rivalry, or the Blue Tornado kneel at War Memorial victorious against a bitter foe for the first time in 15 years.
Longtime Cardinals coach Joe Morris, who’s experienced only four career losses to Tilghman (2001, 2003, 2004, 2005), believes his team and Paducah Tilghman — underneath his former player in Jonathan Smith — are “a lot alike in a lot of ways.”
And it’s hard to disagree.
Both teams are eschewing in a new era at quarterback: Mayfield molding sophomore Zane Cartwright, Tilghman tinkering with freshman Jack James.
Both teams are relying on a strong ground game: Mayfield motoring under senior Kylan Galbreath, Tilghman trucking with freshman Malachi Rider, and seniors in Jarmorie Sabbs and Camdon Marshall.
Both teams aren’t far removed from tough season openers: Mayfield mistreated by McCracken County, Tilghman tossed aside by Graves County.
Both teams have won three straight since those tough openers, too: Mayfield managing against Graves County, Union County and Caldwell County; Tilghman topping Calloway County, Trigg County and Murray.
And both teams just want to get going, knowing full and well a win tonight could be the catalyst to a deep playoff run in November.
“This has always been a great rivalry,” Morris said. “Our kids respect Tilghman, and I know their players respect us. I know (Tilghman) wants to change this in their direction ... and it’s always a great game. It always seems to come down to big mistakes at crucial times, and this time around, I hope it isn’t us.”
While Tilghman’s running game consistently gets the weekly buzz, it was a passing attack that really got the Blue Tornado rolling a week ago in Murray, as Marshall and fellow senior, Brian Thomas, were big targets for James. The Tigers held Tilghman to less than 60 yards total rushing, but in exchange, Thomas and Marshall combined for more than 200 yards receiving.
“They win games by running the ball,” Morris added, “but you can’t cover guys like Marshall and Thomas too long.”
As for the Blue Tornado, the mix of youth and experience continue to be the story for this team. Marshall’s move from quarterback to wide receiver and full-time safety duties has only magnified his importance to the team, while guys like James (24-for-37 passing, 471 yards, six TDs, two INTs) and Rider (48 carries, 383 yards, four TDs) have somehow ignored the fact that freshmen footballers aren’t supposed to look this experienced.
Thomas has three interceptions returned for 136 yards and a touchdown in his first four games (along with a team-best 383 yards receiving and four scores), junior kicker Shelby Nickal is 17-for-18 on PATs with a field goal, and a linebacking corps of Turner Humphrey, Seth Slayton and Sabbs has already combined for more than 90 tackles in 16 quarters.
Is Tilghman ready? Smith thinks so.
“I know Mayfield is prepared,” he said. “They are a great team with great coaches. I believe we are ready, too. I’m convinced that the team with the fewest mental mistakes comes away with the win. Hopefully, we both live up to the atmosphere a game with this tradition deserves.”
Last Five MeetingsSept. 6, 2019: Mayfield won 38-20 at Paducah
Aug. 31, 2018: Mayfield won 51-27 in Mayfield
Sept. 1, 2017: Mayfield won 47-14 at Paducah
Sept. 2, 2016: Mayfield won 48-26 in Mayfield
Sept. 4, 2015: Mayfield won 37-14 at Paducah
Mustangs Bowling Green boundAfter graduating as a Purple in the Class of 2003, playing Bowling Green just makes sense for Marc Clark. The McCracken County football coach understands that to be the best, one must play the best.
Now at 4-0, his Mustangs have a terrific challenge tonight on the road, in what can easily be described as the team’s toughest opponent to date.
“This is a great litmus test for where we are this year, and where this program is trending,” Clark said. “Absolutely, it’s a quality opponent. It’s where I played and went to school, and it’s one of the top programs in the state.”
The Purples are without the services of top wideout and athlete Dez Wilson — younger brother of OVC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year DeAngelo Wilson (Austin Peay) — in what’s described as a sustained knee injury. And, yes, the Purples are coming off of their first loss of the year, 10-7, in a bitter battle with rival South Warren.
But Bowling Green already has massive wins against Class 6A programs in St. Xavier and Pleasure Ridge Park, where they allowed a combined six points. And Clark believes last week’s 3-point loss will only boil up Bowling Green into a sharper, more focused opponent.
Defensively, the Mustangs will have no choice but to account for Bowling Green’s elite athleticism across the board, but senior tight end Jordan Dingle might be the biggest problem of all. The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder currently totes 21 offers and is most notably being pursued by Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Purdue (according to 247Sports). An aspiring medical student, per Bowling Green Daily News sports reporter Jared MacDonald, he leads the Purples with 13 catches for 170 yards through three games, including three catches for 49 yards last week.
McCracken County has found itself on the positive side of shootouts in the past two weeks with wins over Apollo and Daviess County, thanks in no small part to the 500-plus rushing yards and seven touchdowns from senior running back Hunter Bradley during those eight quarters.
He’s healthy and well-removed from his late-season ankle injury in 2019, and Clark believes his bell-cow back is just now getting into “game-shape.”
“I don’t care if it’s pick-up basketball in gym class, or if I’m playing checkers,” Clark added. “If I’m picking first, I’m taking Hunter Bradley for my team.”
Clark is also terrifically pleased with the development and production from sophomore quarterback Pryor Lamb, who’s offset three interceptions with 10 touchdowns and a 62.5% completion rate through four games. He’s equally found open opportunities with four receivers in Jeremiah Hughes, Nick Masek, Zander Mayes and Bradley, and is averaging more than 160 yards passing per game.
This balance will be necessary against Bowling Green, which has limited its opponents to less than 60 yards rushing and 110 yards passing through four contests.
Last Three MeetingsAug. 30, 2019: Bowling Green won 42-14 at Paducah
Oct. 28, 2016: Bowling Green won 42-14 at Paducah
Oct. 30, 2015: Bowling Green won 38-14 in Bowling Green