There are 22 reasons why the Starkville Yellowjackets should find extra motivation for tonight’s final regular season football game against Columbus.
That’s how many seniors are on the SHS roster in 2010 and head coach Jamie Mitchell calls them a “special group.” They are to be honored prior to the 7 p.m. kickoff at Yellowjacket Stadium.
“I’m so proud of what they’ve given to me the last six months that I’ve been here, but they’ve been Yellowjackets a lot longer than that,” Mitchell said. “I told them we’ll look back in a couple of years and be able to talk about the group that laid the foundation here of what we’re going to build on.
“They have endured a lot and stayed with football when it wasn’t the thing to do. I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys and will certainly them, but we’re not ready to talk about that because we hope to have a lot of football left in front of us.”
Starkville (5-5 overall, 3-3 in Class 6A, Region 1) is hoping things fall into place for them to capture a playoff spot.
For that to happen, the Jackets have to beat the Falcons and Olive Branch has to knock off Tupelo.
Mitchell wishes his squad could have taken care of business earlier in the season where it didn’t have to come down to the last game.
He knows there won’t be any need for scoreboard watching if the Jackets don’t intend to do the things it takes to win.
“I worried about that Olive Branch-Tupelo scenario a little bit, but quickly you figure out there’s nothing you can do about that,” Mitchell said. “We’re trying to concentrate on us and get our guys as ready as we can to play.”
Starkville has experienced every type of emotion possible in losing the last three games to Southaven 28-27, Olive Branch 40-36 and South Panola 47-13.
Mitchell admits the last-second losses and being dominated last week have taken a toll, but has watched the character of Jackets shine through the adversity.
“We’ve had our feelings hurt, our hearts broke and have been through it, but that’s built some toughness in our guys and they just keep coming back to work,” Mitchell said. “They’ve taken the approach that our playoffs start (tonight).”
One of the seniors has led Starkville this season with his arm and his legs.
Quarterback Jaquez Johnson has completed 63 of 142 pass attempts for 1,095 yards and 15 touchdowns, while carrying 131 times for 586 more yards and 12 touchdowns.
Columbus coach Tony Stanford knows the Jackets are dangerous, but said it starts with Johnson.
“The quarterback is what he’s been the last two years,” Stanford said when reached Thursday morning. “They are swarming to the football (on defense) and the offensive line looks like they are better than what they were last year and the running back is really improved.”
Garrett Smith, who is the second-leading rusher for the Jackets with 566 yards on 82 attempts, has been slowed the last couple of weeks with an ankle injury.
“He was hurt at Olive Branch,” Mitchell said. “He tried to go a little bit, but just couldn’t run on it. We’ve got our fingers crossed hoping he’ll be ready to go this week. For us to click like we need to, we need him on the field.”
The Falcons (3-7, 1-5) have been regulated to primarily a spoiler’s role, but the rivalry factor always exists when one or the other makes the short trip down Highway 25 for the Golden Triangle matchup.
Columbus intends to finish the season strong and stop a two-game losing streak to Starkville.
“We feel like we gave the game away for the last two years and we hope to play better this year and get us a victory,” Stanford said.
Stanford knows what it’s like to face the Jackets in a rivalry situation. He was also the head coach at Louisville.
Early-season injuries have been mostly the cause of the Falcons not having the type of season they wanted.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries and probably more injuries than I’ve ever had as a head coach,” Stanford said. “That hurt us early and we’ve finally started getting some of them back. We’ve had a couple of games we felt like we should have won, but just didn’t bounce our way in the middle of the season. Here at the end everybody has been better than us.”