It was a Blues’ kind of homecoming for Gray Baker.
The former Graham quarterback threw for 144 yards and four touchdowns, leading the Richlands Blue Tornado to a penalty-filled 24-8 win over the G-Men on Friday night at Mitchell Stadium.
Baker, who transferred to Richlands following last school year, completed 16-of-23 passes, including three scores to A.J. Johnson (9-69) and another to Todd McGlothlin (5-54), who also had a touchdown reception.
“Gray and A.J. are tough and Gray and Todd are tough,” Richlands head coach Greg Mance said. “Gray is getting better each week.”
That duo combined for 14 receptions for 123 yards.
“I just thought they played a lot of man-to-man coverage and I have probably the best receiving corps in the state,” Baker said. “When you are working with people like that, they can really do whatever you tell them.
“It is really their value more than mine. They made the plays, I just put the ball where they could catch it.”
Richlands (3-0), which won its 32nd straight regular season game, could face its biggest test next week with a visit to Pulaski County.
“Pulaski is probably the toughest team we have seen so far,” Baker said. “It is going to be a long week of practice with a lot of film, a lot of extra running and extra work, but we are going for 33 and we are just going to do what we have to do and hopefully that comes through.”
Graham (2-1), which snapped another Richlands win streak at 33 in 2007, dropped its fifth straight game to the Blue Tornado. The G-Men lead the all-time series 33-24, but are 1-10 in their last 11 meetings.
“I am proud of our kids. This is our third straight week against a higher division team,” said Graham head coach Mike Williams, whose G-Men have already beaten AA foes in Bluefield and Tazewell. “Other teams won’t even play in the same division, much less higher divisions so we hold our heads high with that.
“We hold our heads high because we have a good group of kids...We run a good clean program, we are playing higher division teams and we are proud of what we have done.”
Richlands took a 12-0 lead into the break, with Baker connecting with Johnson, who broke a short tackle and dashed 27 yards for a touchdown in the opening quarter. It was that combination in the second stanza, with Baker rolling to his left and connecting on a 4-yard pass to Johnson in the end zone with 55 second left in the half.
The Blue Tornado out-gained Graham 163-36 in the opening half, including 14 first downs to one for the G-Men. Penalties were also a trend throughout the game, with the clubs combining for 25 infractions for 174 yards, with 15 going against Graham.
“Defensively, penalties killed us and the other thing that killed is I don’t think we had a first down in the first half,” Williams said. “When your defense is on the field the whole half, it is tough to hold up.”
Graham had just eight first downs in the game, and got seven of them on their initial drive of the second quarter, moving 92 yards in 11 plays, with the G-Men putting Colby Hill at quarterback and moving Spencer Sheets elsewhere on the field.
“We feel like Sheets is the most dangerous player with the ball so we moved him into a couple of different positions to try and get him the football and it worked,” Williams said. “Then we went down the field and then they adjusted and stopped us the rest of the way...
“Outside of that one drive in the third we didn’t have much on offense tonight.”
Hill put the G-Men on the board with a short pass to Sheets, who broke a tackle and dashed down the right sideline 16 yards for the score. Sheets then connected with Charlie Benfield for the two-point conversion and the G-Men were within 12-8 with 5:57 left in the third quarter.
“We did have momentum, we felt like things were turning the corner for us and the next thing you know they have got another score and that is tough against a team like that to come back on,” Williams said.
Richlands answered, converting a 4th-and-1 when the G-Men jumped offsides and then continued a 14-play, 62-yard drive, with the Blue Tornado doing it again on a 4th-and-goal from the 7, with Baker connecting on a short toss to Johnson.
“Those were big plays and that is what this game was going to come down to,” said Richlands head coach Greg Mance, whose Blue Tornado didn’t convert an extra point kick or conversion with normal kicker Ben Brown one of several Blues out with injuries. “You have got two good football teams and Graham was flying around and we did a great job defensively in the first half.
“I don’t know if they had 50 yards, but then they had that 90-some yard drive. We had a couple of people open behind them and we dropped balls and just had a couple of little breakdowns.
“We converted when we had to and that is a mark of a very good football team. It puts pressure on them and made them work and they did it when it mattered.”
Richlands was able to put it away on its next possession, with Colton Staten, who finished with 120 yards on the ground, running up the middle for 23 yards, and the Blues converted a 4th-and-12 with Baker hitting Todd McGlothlin for the final margin from 18 yards out.
Penalties, dropped passes, injuries and turnovers — including two fumbles in the red zone — were all issues for the Blue Tornado, but Mance was pleased to escape Mitchell Stadium with another win.
“There is a lot of good to take away from this if we can shore up our turnovers and penalties, I think we have a chance to be a good football team,” Mance said.
While Richlands will now prepare for Pulaski County, the G-Men will take a week off before returning to the gridiron against another Group AA team at Marion on Sept. 21. Williams saw a lot to like from this contest compared to last season when the G-Men started the season 1-2 and lost 38-0 at Richlands.
“I just told the kids we were 1-2 a year ago, we are 2-1 now, this game didn’t go our way, but it is a 22-point swing in our favor so we have improved by three touchdowns from a year ago,” Williams said. “We are hammering out higher division opponents week after week and very few teams in this area are willing to do that.”
—Contact Brian Woodson
Baker tosses four TDs in Blues’ win
It was a Blues’ kind of homecoming for Gray Baker.
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