November 15, 2013 11:37:57 AM
STARKVILLE -- "When the grass turns brown, that's when we want to still be around."
That is the message Starkville High School football coach Jamie Mitchell imparted to his team each day this week as his team prepared to play host to Grenada (9-2) at 7 tonight in a first-round Mississippi High School Activities Association North State playoff game.
"If you tried to match up teams as evenly in a first-round playoff game, I don't think you could've intentionally gotten a more competitive and fun football game than Grenada at Starkville," Mitchell said. "I believe if you're a competitor, you live for games like this."
Grenada has one of the state's most intimidating defenses in Class 6A, led by linebackers Shareef White and Genard Avery, who have verbally committed to Mark Hudspeth's Louisiana-Lafayette's program. The Chargers' defense is allowing 16.3 points per game this season.
White, a 219-pound outside linebacker, has 81 tackles. He ran a 4.6 40-yard dash at summer camps. Avery has 3.5 sacks and 75 tackles.
"They have two of the best linebackers and overall defense we've seen all season," Mitchell said. "We understand it's going to be a four-quarter battle to wear them down before we break through their line."
Mitchell and his players believe the game will be a battle of defenses. Starkville (8-3) is coming off a 24-7 victory against Clinton in which it controlled the line of scrimmage and caused two turnovers to swing the momentum on Senior Night.
"We think and have been told their defense is the one that is getting all the hype," Starkville sophomore defensive lineman Maleke Bell said. "Well, we pride ourselves at Starkville in being able to play some defense as well, and it'll be a test of which one is better by the end of the night."
Starkville will get a boost tonight with the return of junior workhorse tailback Jacquez Horsley. The 180-pounder has been out with a ankle injury, but he has 789 rushing yards and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
"I think getting Jacquez back in our offense at 100 percent allows us to feel like all of our weapons are at full strength for the most important part of the season," Mitchell said. "I don't care how long that kind of athlete has been out. That has to give your kids confidence."
In his first playoff game at quarterback, senior Princeton Jones will try to give the Yellow Jackets the same kind of leadership they received from Gabe Myles last season in a run to the Class 5A state title. Jones has 2,121 yards and 30 touchdowns, but he will have to take better care of the football (22 turnovers -- 11 interceptions, 11 fumbles) if Starkville wanted to extend its season.
"The key all year for Princeton is not asking him to do too much for us in a game of this magnitude," Mitchell said. "He'll be fine if we put him in situations, specifically down and distances, that will make him feel comfortable."
Mitchell believes his team can make a deep run in the playoffs. The winner of tonight's game could face defending state champion South Panola and Region 2 number one seed Madison Central before getting to Jackson.
"This is why when you're making the move to Class 6A you wouldn't want the road to be any different," Mitchell said. "Why not go through the hardest and best road to get back to where we expect this program to be every season?"
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.