Dunbar outlasts No. 7 Mervo

Poets overcome loss of star Roche to remain undefeated

Published 9/30/2022 2:25 a.m. EDT, Updated 10/4/2022 6:51 a.m. EDT

Dunbar's Tristen Kenan looks for running space during Thursday's Baltimore City football game against Mervo. Kenan scored twice as the No. 6 Poets defeated the seventh-ranked Mustangs, 24-20, in front of nearly 6,500 at Morgan State University.

Devin Roche had a coming out performance in Dunbar High’s victory over Mervo last year. The Poets made a ringing statement in the anticipated rematch Thursday evening.

No. 6 Dunbar defeated the seventh-ranked Mustangs, 24-20, in front of an estimated audience of 6,500 at Morgan State University’s Hughes Stadium. Tristen Kenan scored a pair of touchdowns for the Poets and Devin Paige added a score.

The reigning Class 2A/1A state champ Poets rallied in the second half to extend the area’s longest current win streak to 18 games. The victory also put Dunbar (5-0 overall, 2-0 Division I) in control of the Baltimore City league’s Division I.

The Poets did it mainly without Roche, who’s dealing with a bruised foot. The Old Dominion University commit and reigning VSN Offensive Player of the Year who accumulated nearly 3,500 yards and 40 touchdowns last season, played only a couple of series in the first half Thursday.

“We have a lot of ‘dogs’ on this team…Devin is great and I love Devin to death, but we’re more than Devin Roche,” said Dunbar senior two-way linemen Josh Fedd, “we’re the Dunbar Poets and we got some guys on this team.”

“Dev is our guy but they keep disrespecting us, saying we can’t do it without Dev,” said Kenan. “We had to give them something else to talk about.”

Kenan, a powerfully built 6-foot-1, 210-pound running back/defensive back who had 212 yards in Dunbar’s state title-game win last year, finished with 69 yards (on 16 carries) Thursday, including a three-yard score late in the third to give Dunbar the lead for good. Paige, a 5-foot-6 slasher, displayed elusiveness and effort in a 28-yard touchdown run, extending the Poets’ advantage to 24-14 in the fourth.

It all started Thursday with sophomore Tavion Witherspoon, who replaced Roche at quarterback in the second quarter. He steadily guided the Poets’ offense, completing eight of 11 passes for 130 yards.

“We felt Savion could get it done, if we had Devin it would’ve been much easier,” said Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith. “We felt Savion could do whatever was needed to get us the win.”

Witherspoon credited his offensive line and Dunbar offensive coaching staff “for believing” in him Thursday.

“I appreciated everybody that supported me in the stands,” said Witherspoon, who added four carries for 15 yards. “We’re back in the lab Monday.”

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After the Poets managed just 19 yards in their first three possessions, Witherspoon entered after Roche (three total yards) started the fourth series with an incomplete throw. Witherspoon hit Tony Hart across the middle for a 29-yard gain.

He went back to Hart (five receptions, 101 yards) on the next play, but the ball went off Hart’s hands and into the arms of Mustangs’ defensive back Jannard Lockhart. Lockhart streaked 45 yards down the sidelines for the game’s first score.

The Poets answered with a six-play, 64-yard drive, highlighted by a Witherspoon-to-Hart pass covering 39 yards. Kenan powered his way into the end zone from two yards and added the two-point conversion for the lead.

Mervo (3-1, 2-1 Division I) took advantage of good field position to reclaim the advantage. Bobby Johnson’s four-yard touchdown run completed a short four-play, 35-yard drive for a 14-8 lead with 5:14 left in the third.

But Dunbar came right back with a 10-play, 66-yard series as Kenan scored his second touchdown of the evening. He broke through the middle for a 22-yard gain on a 3rd-and-1.

“We’re a bend but don’t break team. We know we’re more prepared than the team in front of us,” said Kenan, who has scholarship offers from Akron, Maine, Marshall, Morgan, Stoneybrook and Towson. “The fourth quarter, we still got it and they don’t.”

The Poets fumbled early in the fourth, but their defense posted a three-and-out. Dunbar pushed its advantage to double digits as Paige got to the outside, slipped out of a tackle and weaved through traffic before diving across the end zone.

On the ensuing drive, Fedd (two sacks) recovered a fumble for the Poets defense that rebounded from an onslaught by Mervo’s offensive front in the first half.

“We started doing different stunts,” said Smith. “We threw more athletic people at them and started making the quarterback beat us with his legs.”

The Mustangs rotated Malik Woodrum (two-of-three passing, five yards) and Raymond Moore (six-of-10, 70 yards), both juniors, at quarterback Thursday.

Moore, who led the Mustangs with 110 yards rushing, threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to JaQuan Rucker on the game’s final play.

It was too little too late for the defending 4A/3A state champ Mustangs, who didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the first half, despite moving the ball with relative ease. Mervo was hindered by several penalties.

“We had too many penalties and mental errors to beat a team like Dunbar,” said Mustangs coach Patrick Nixon, whose team’s 12-winning streak was snapped. “Dunbar executed when it needed to.”

Last year, Mervo had a 16-point fourth quarter lead before Dunbar scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes to force overtime. The Poets won 48-46 as Roche finished with 260 total yards and accounted for six touchdowns.

The rematch didn’t have offensive fireworks, but the premiere game of Baltimore City’s football regular season was intense as Dunbar won for the seventh time in the last 11 meetings.

“They overhyped this game too much…it was a great crowd,” said Smith. “These kids got to understand they can lose next week or the week after that. They have to understand this game was not a championship game.”

No. 6 Dunbar 24, No. 7 Mervo 20

at Morgan State University

Mervo 0 6 8 6 - 20

Dunbar 0 8 8 8 - 24

Second quarter

Mervo - Jannard Lockhart 45 interception return (kick failed)

Dunbar - Tristen Kenan 2 run (Kenan run)

Third quarter

Mervo - Bobby Johnson 4 run (Raymond Moore run)

Dunbar - Kenan 3 run (Kenan run)

Fourth quarter

Dunbar - Tony Paige 28 run (Kenan run)

Mervo - JaQuan Rucker 32 pass from Moore (game over)