Swatted away: Unexpected run for Jackets falls short of state title

Starkville's Rodrigues Clark
Staff Writer

Starkville was playing with house money on Friday night in the Class 6A State championship.

No one expected the Yellowjackets to be in Oxford playing for a title – at least not this year. No one really thought it could be except those on the team and on the coaching staff, who had intentions of winning it all for the seventh time.

It all came screeching to a halt on fourth down and less than 30 seconds left when Rodrigues Clark met a brick wall in the form of a Pearl defender. That essentially ended the game and gave Pearl the state title with a heartbreaking 21-17 thriller.

“We had a great ball club, SHS coach Chris Jones said. "We had a great group of coaches and a great group of fans. We weren’t supposed to be here, but at the end of the day, we didn’t get it done. I’m not mad at my guys at all."

Pearl (16-0) was in a similar spot as the Jackets (13-3) a year ago when they fell to Clinton in the state championship in Starkville. This year, Pearl was the experienced squad that would not go away despite SHS’ defensive prowess.

The Jackets blitz worked for the better part of three quarters where they racked up seven sacks led by Zach Edwards’ 13 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. The screen pass knocked the blitz out in the fourth quarter and helped the Pirates to the win.

The first quarter was all about which squad would blink first on defense and that would prove to be Starkville.

A 49-yard punt return brought Pearl into Starkville territory where it went with trickery for the first score. A wide receiver pass from 30 yards out had the Pirates on the board and up 6-0 through one quarter.

Clark answered right back for the Jackets emphatically when the junior running back raced 53 yards untouched for the 7-6 lead. After a defensive stop, he got right back in the end zone from 7 yards away and it was suddenly 14-6 for SHS.

During that stretch, Clark had racked up 95 yards and two scores on just three carries taking him over 100 yards in the first half.

Pearl was able to tack on a field goal before the half and cut the score to 14-9 heading to the locker room.

While the offense started to sputter, the Jackets had to do the leg work again defensively in the third quarter. Negative plays forced by the defense continued to drive them and they held the score where it was going into the fourth.

Pearl began to find something when the quarter turned. The Pirates drove the football inside the red zone where Johnny Winston pounded in a 5-yard run to retake the lead. It was 15-14 with 9:14 remaining after they missed the two-point conversion.

With momentum waning and a Starkville punt following that score, the defense came up big again. A forced fumble was recovered by Alexis Stallings and the Jackets were in business at the Pearl 36-yard-line. They had to settle for a 34-yard field goal by Garin Boniol that he calmly struck and had SHS back in the lead at 17-15 with just 3 minutes left.

Pearl came right back on the next drive pushing the football 75 yards on eight plays capped by a Tylan Knight 4-yard run that proved to be the game winner.

Despite Clark being stopped on the fourth down run on the next possession, he was hard to keep in check for the night. The junior finished with 29 carries for 172 yards and two touchdowns.

Pearl wide receiver and Mississippi State commitment Jonquarise Patterson made the bigger plays to help seal the win. On the two second half touchdown drives, it was his plays that got the Pirates into position to score. He finished with 13 catches for 119 yards and was the game’s Most Valuable Player.

“In these kind of games, big time players make big time plays,” Jones said. “At the end of the day, we didn’t do enough to win.”

Surrounded by dozens of players that were in tears, heartache and despair, Jones made one promise. He said that his team would return. No excuses otherwise from SHS’ first-year coach.

“That’s a great team over there and my hat goes off to them," Jones said of Pearl. "We’re a young group and we’ll be back. Back to work we go. We’ll be back next year.”