November 24, 2013 12:45:40 AM
BATESVILLE -- Starkville has now seen where the road will end in its move to Class 6A football if the program doesn't continue to improve.
For the first time in three seasons, Starkville's season ends somewhere other Jackson as top ranked South Panola controlled a 20-6 victory Friday in the Mississippi High School Activities Association second round action.
"We know exactly what the bar is now for our program," Starkville coach Jamie Mitchell said. "We're crushed and heartbroken right now but our expectations do not change here at Starkville but for us to move forward we have to find a way to beat these guys."
Tigers tailback Darrell Henderson scored all three touchdowns as the junior speedster showed his athleticism, power and vision on each of the scores.
Henderson, who finished 133 total yards, scored on a 1-yard plunge in the first quarter after the Starkville defense got South Panola (13-1) in the exact situation they wanted. On a third down and long, Tigers quarterback Rip Kirk was forced to maneuver out of the pocket and launched a jump ball near the goal line where it appeared Yellow Jackets defensive back Darius Grayer appeared to have a easy interception. However the ball went right through the hands of Grayer and miraculously into the arms of a South Panola receiver setting up a first and goal for the host Tigers.
Starkville (9-4) wanted to get Kirk, who is not known for his athleticism, on the move and in clear passing situations on third down and Yellow Jackets defensive coordinator Brooks Oakley was able to accomplish that feat.
On the next South Panola drive, Oakley drew up a blitz right up the middle and the linebacker that nearly got Kirk on the ground for a sack would've had Henderson in coverage. However, the blitz allowed Henderson's wheel route to go unguarded and the tailback took the pass out in the flat 48 yards to make it 14-0.
"We wanted to be conservative on offense knowing the conditions of the field and the weather tonight," South Panola coach Lance Pogue said. "We took the wind in the first quarter because we wanted to try and start fast. It was a gamble, sure but I was so happy to see our kids respond to our challenge."
South Panola, who now runs its winning streak against Mississippi competition to 26 straight games, held Starkville to just seven yards of total offense in the first quarter. The Tigers, which hasn't lost to a Mississippi high school since Nov. 18, 2011, simply dominated the line of scrimmage allowing Starkville to finish with just 58 yards on the ground.
"If we can't run the football, we can't win, period and that's exactly what happened tonight," Mitchell said.
The inability to run the football forced Starkville senior quarterback Princeton Jones to try and win the game with his right arm and the converted wide receiver wasn't able to figure out South Panola's zone coverage. Jones threw two critical interceptions including one that was returned 45 yards and set up Henderson third score on a 8-yard touchdown draw play.
"Having Princeton drop back and throw it on this defense was not how we thought we could win the football game and to put him in that position was quite frankly unfair," Mitchell said.
Henderson finished with 84 yards on 25 carries but the Yellowjackets bottled him up in the second half by getting consistent push from their defensive lineman including sophomore Maleke Bell.
"I thought our defense played really solid all night but for a ball that should've been intercepted and a blown coverage," Mitchell said. "We can't fault our defensive effort at all tonight."
South Panola will now travel to Tupelo for the Class 6A North Half final next week as the Golden Wave knocked off Madison Central in the other North Half semi-final matchup.
"It's the only thing we could ask for when you have a shot to get to the state championship game," Pogue said. "Starkville is a program on the rise and we knew they'd be a challenge but our defense did a great job in stopping a team that put up 40 plus sports on Madison Central this season," Pogue said.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.