October 28, 2010 12:26:00 PM
David Miller -
STARKVILLE -- Emotionally shattered from two close losses, Starkville High School football coach Jamie Mitchell admits his team is still trying to regroup.
To have to bounce back from those defeats to face the No. 1 team in the nation seems unfair for a burgeoning program that has lost all of its games by a touchdown or less this season.
But as nice as the pity points would be, Mitchell is realistic about what his team will face Friday when it plays host to Mississippi High School Activities Association defending Class 6A champion South Panola.
"It''s an opportunity no one in else in the county will have," Mitchell said. "We''re looking at it as our shot to do something special. ... This is a crazy game, so you never say never."
Starkville (5-4, 3-2 Class 6A, Region 1) converted three fourth downs on its final possession Friday and scored with six seconds remaining against Olive Branch, only to see the Conquistadors steal a 40-36 win on a frantic touchdown pass. That loss came on the heels of a 28-27 loss to Southaven in which Starkville failed to convert a fake field goal attempt that could have given it the margin of victory.
The Tigers (9-0, 5-0) haven''t lost since the 2008 state title game, when Meridian snapped their 89-game winning streak.
Wins against the Tigers don''t come easy -- something Mitchell knows well from his time coaching at Olive Branch and Tupelo. Calling South Panola a pillar of consistency would be a vast understatement.
"You may look at what they lose every year, but you know they''re going to have kids the next year who look identical, if not better," Mitchell said. "It blows you away when you think about the continued success. Some schools get good four or five year runs, but they do it every year."
Said Starkville High quarterback Jaquez Johnson, "You''re supposed to go out and think you''re going to win every game, but they (South Panola) actually do."
South Panola defeated Southaven 48-13 last week and destroyed Tupelo 62-6 the week prior. The 13 points the Chargers scored was the most the Tigers allowed since Week 2, when Colquitt County (Ga.) put up 35. South Panola has allowed 33 points in five region games.
As daunting as the Tigers'' defense has been, the Jackets believe they have a formula to move the ball.
Quick, precision plays that neutralize South Panola''s box-loading, pressure-employing defense will be the focus of Starkville High''s game plan.
"You look at your playbook and you try to find the quickest things you can get off, running or passing," Mitchell said. "You can''t run anything slow developing or expect to have very long to throw. Go through, find some quick hitters, and get the ball out of the QB''s hand. They''re gonna come get you."
Johnson remembers the Tigers'' defense well, especially from his sophomore season when the Jackets lost 56-22 at home. Johnson said the game was the first in which coaches allowed him to throw extensively.
"I had a lot of passing yards in that game, and it made me realize they''re good, but you can beat them," he said.
Doing so has always been the problem -- for everyone. Beating South Panola with a battered quarterback is another story.
Johnson is battling a sore shoulder, but Mitchell insists it''s not from contact in the running game. He doesn''t anticipate the shoulder will affect Johnson''s play at quarterback, but Johnson, who has three sacks and three interceptions, could be limited on defense and/or special teams.
The Jackets'' "iron man" has been impressive as a game manager, accounting for four turnovers and leading the team with 26 combined touchdowns.
He has 1,028 passing yards, and is second on the team with 555 rushing yards.
The question entering the season was whether Johnson could handle all the roles thrust upon him. He said he has his answer at halftime of every game.
"I really start to feel it about the end of the second quarter," Johnson said, "but at halftime I drink a lot of fluids, relax, look at our game plan, and get ready. That second wind kicks in and I''m ready to go."
Starkville has a few other injuries. Tackle/defensive end Chris Prater, who had a cast put on his broken hand this week, and fullback Jakarta Agnew, who suffered an AC strain at Horn Lake.
The Yellow Jackets enter Friday in a four-way tie for second place in the region. They hold a tiebreaker against Tupelo.