November 18, 2012 12:37:31 AM
FULTON -- Tyrone Shorter has maintained since the beginning of the season that the Noxubee County High School football team can throw the ball.
Shorter has heard the shouts from the fans, though, who would prefer the Tigers open up the offense and sling the football around the field like they did a few years ago, including 2008, when the program won its only state championship.
But Shorter is a realist. When he looks at his team, he sees an experienced and deep offensive line and one of the state's best running backs in senior Darrell Robinson. His reasoning is simple: Why throw the ball when the running game is clicking?
Noxubee County delivered a cautionary tale Friday night to Louisville or the South State champion: Talk of the demise of its passing game have been premature.
Senior quarterback DeAngelo Ballard's 36-yard touchdown pass to Charles Hughes in the first quarter provided the spark Noxubee County needed in a 16-3 victory against Itawamba Agricultural in the semifinals of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A North State playoffs.
"We always knew we could throw the football," Shorter said. "We are no stranger at it. Ballard threw the ball as a 10th-grader and threw the ball all over the field as a junior. We just changed our offense up a little. We haven't had to use the pass as much, but we knew we had to loosen them up some and make a big play.
"Our offensive coaches had a heck of a game plan, and it worked all night. We moved the ball up and down the field on these guys. We just got inside the red zone and stalled in the red zone and the turnovers hurt us. We get hit with adversity sometimes and these guys just find a way to get it done."
Ballard was 6 of 11 for 102 yards. He and Hughes, a transfer from Starkville High, showed their maturity on the touchdown pass, which came after an unsportsmanlike penalty against the Indians. With a first-and-10 from the IAHS 36-yard line, Ballard dropped back, waited and delivered a laser over the middle to Hughes in between the coverage. Hughes snatched the pass and bounced off defensive back Ashton Shumpert into the end zone for what proved to be the game-winning score.
"I give him the credit because he saw on film that they play a cover three," Ballard said. "The play was a fade, and we knew we weren't going to be able to do a fade, so we stopped it and I threw it to him and he made the play."
Ballard said he knew Hughes was going to make the adjustment on the route. He said the Tigers' receivers tried several times to outrun the defense, including Shumpert in the back, so Ballard said the Tigers figured out changes had to be made. The result was a laser over the middle that Hughes
"I saw him running full speed and when I saw him slowing down I gathered myself and got ready to throw the ball," Ballard said.
Hughes wasn't a one-hit wonder. He used his hands to snare a pass from Ballard near the Noxubee County sideline. He finished with four catches for 83 yards.
Even though Hughes was the only receiver with multiple catches, he said the Tigers know their passing game can strike if opponents aren't ready.
"I feel that was the most important thing to do tonight," Hughes said. "We knew what was expected of us, and all we had to do was execute."
Hughes said he saw Shumpert on the other side and one man on him, so he knew he had to break his route out and break it back inside because he realized the defenders were going to bite on the run
The passing game might have had more opportunities to shine if not for two costly turnovers that ended promising drives. But Shorter and Ballard know having someone like Robinson in the backfield is a valuable weapon when an offense finds the right mix of running and throwing the football.
"I felt good," Ballard said. "Coming into the game, we talked to the receivers and we knew we were going to have to make some plays because they play the run pretty well and we were going to have to help Robinson.
"People have been sleeping on our passing game, saying Noxubee County can only run the ball. We had to show them we can do both."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.