NEW ORLEANS – For weeks, John Curtis football coach J.T. Curtis has been asked if his 2012 squad, which is No. 2 in the USA Today Super 25 rankings, is the best in program history and in the nation this season.
The Patriots (14-0) may have answered that question for their coach Saturday afternoon by beating Evangel 35-13 in the Class 2A state championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“It’s certainly a very good football team, and it’s a team that can compete with anybody,” Curtis said. “I told them in the locker room, I don’t know if they are the No. 1 team in the nation. I don’t know how you judge that. But I’ll take them. And I will go to battle with them against anybody, any where.”
Curtis, which now has 25 state championships, finished off a second straight undefeated championship season by limiting Evangel’s big plays. The Eagles (12-3) hadn’t scored less than 41 points in four playoff wins going into Saturday’s game.
“They’ve got a national ranking for a reason,” Evangel coach Phillip Deas said. “They’ve got a lot of great athletes. I’ve said all week long. When you put the 14, 15 Division I offers they have out there with the great coaching and discipline and everything that Curtis brings to the table every year, you will have a special team. And that’s what they had this year.”
The opening minutes followed Evangel’s game plan. The Eagles won the toss, chose to receive, and senior quarterback Dakota Duron led the team down the field into the red zone in 13 plays.
But Duron was stripped during a quarterback draw on first down at the Curtis 16. The ball bounced directly into the hands of Patriots linebacker Duke Riley, who returned the turnover 80 yards for a touchdown and an early lead.
“That was a huge play,” Deas said. “We did every thing that we wanted to do (on the opening drive). We wanted to take some time to build that momentum. It was working exactly the way we wanted it to. And then after that turnover, the guy got a perfect bounce and caught it on the run. It’s a testament to Duke Riley and how he’s always in the right place, doing the right thing.”
Riley’s fumble return gave Curtis a lead before the Patriots ran an offensive play.
“I was just worried about getting on the ball,” Riley said. “When I looked up, no one was in front of me, so I just took it to the house.”
Curtis forced a three-and-out on Evangel’s next possession and then scored in three plays that covered 59 yards. George Moreira finished the quick-strike drive with a 30-yard run.
Duron led a nine-play, 95-yard touchdown drive to cut the Patriots’ lead to 14-7 with 8 minutes left before halftime. He completed seven of his eight throws on the drive, including a 17-yard touchdown to Trent Taylor.
“I was feeling great,” Duron said. “The offense was in a good rhythm, and I was throwing the ball. Curtis has a great defense, but I feel like we were moving the ball.”
Curtis answered with two more touchdowns to close out the second quarter – a 72-yard run from Sherman Badie and a 1-yard rush from quarterback Patrick Morton. The Patriots’ hard-hitting defense also knocked Duron out of the game with a sprained AC joint late in the second quarter.
“I threw a pass, and the guy hit me from the left side and drove me into the turf,” said Duron, who went for X-rays following the game. “It hurt, but I just thought it was a big hit. I knew I was going to get those big hits in this game.
“I got up, and after the next play I was walking back to the huddle, and I could feel the bone popping. The swelling built up, and it kept popping. And I couldn’t raise my arm above my head.”
Taylor, who was named the Evangel MVP, took over at quarterback for the Eagles, who finished with 289 yards total offense (Curtis had 344). Evangel still moved the ball, but Riley led a tenacious Patriots defense that didn’t surrender any more touchdowns.
“They have scored a lot of points, and I though our defense gave up yardage, but we didn’t give up big plays,” Curtis said. “That was our goal going into today. We didn’t want to give them easy touchdowns.”
The Patriots finished Evangel off with a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that erased nearly half of the fourth quarter.
“We did a good job, especially in the second half, of moving the ball and controlling the clock,” Curtis said. “We kept their offense on the sideline.”
Riley, the Curtis MVP, finished with 8.5 tackles to lead the Patriots, who held Evangel to its lowest scoring output of the season.
“I’m thankful for the opportunity and blessed to be on the team,” Riley said. “I have to give credit to our defensive line for keeping (Evangel’s) O-line off me.”
As soon as a reporter asked Curtis where this year’s Patriots rank in program history, all nine of his players with him in the postgame interview room turned to see his answer. Several offered their own opinions, displaying the No. 1 signal with their index fingers.
“We have speed offensively, speed defensively and good depth,” Curtis said. “Our kicking game has been outstanding You put those three things together, and you certainly have the makings of a good football team.”
When pressed on where he would rank the Patriots nationally, Curtis simply said, “up there.”
Connect with Brent Shirley on Twitter at @bshirley08.