November 4, 2012 1:07:20 AM
STARKVILLE -- Leave it to the Starkville High School football team's defense to seal a crucial win.
After all, defense has been the team's calling card this season.
Starkville forced two turnovers and cornerback Marlow Rogers returned an interception 16 yards in the fourth quarter in a 21-10 victory against Neshoba Central on Friday night in the Class 5A, Region 2 regular-season finale for both teams.
Even though Starkville (8-3) gained only 228 yards -- 73 on a touchdown run by Gabe Myles -- its defense made enough plays against Neshoba Central's screen-game to help the program finish with an undefeated mark (7-0) in the region for a second consecutive season.
"The pick at the end was huge," Starkville coach Jamie Mitchell said. "We knew the screens could pose a problem, but we sat on it and put two backers in the box to help. Marlow was right on the spot and made the play."
Starkville will play host to Saltillo in the opening round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North State playoffs on Friday.
Neshoba Central (5-6) took a 7-0 lead following a three-and-out and a fumble by Starkville. Neshoba Central quarterback Joseph Willis scored on a 3-yard run, but it was his work in the passing game that kept the Yellow Jackets on their heels.
Neshoba Central running back O'Neal McCarty gained only 44 yards on 16 carries, but he led the team with 55 yards on five receptions. Nearly all of the Rockets' passing yards came on screen plays, as the Yellow Jackets' pass rush didn't offer many opportunities to pass down field. Willis was 19 of 33 for 176 yards.
"We play a lot of man coverage, so it was a great job by them to recognize it," Mitchell said. "Neshoba executed, but we were able to adjust to it. We've leaned on our defense all year."
Starkville High's defense shut down four possessions following a Neshoba Central field goal to open the third quarter.
Though Starkville clinched its second straight district title, Mitchell lamented a sloppy performance that included seven penalties, three fumbles, and three turnovers.
"I'm disappointed in our group," he said. "It's not the kind of performance you want heading into the playoffs."
Starkville suffered key injuries in the victory, too, with Juwon Johnson rolling an ankle and Darius Grayer leaving the game after a hit to the ribs. The team played without center Jalen Henderson, who injured his patella Wednesday in practice.