May 16, 2014 10:08:24 AM
STARKVILLE -- After going through a season last year when his defense had difficulty stopping anybody, West Point High School football coach Chris Chambless was pleased with how that unit performed in its first audition for the 2014 season.
In a 27-26 victory against Meridian on Thursday in a spring game at Mississippi State's Davis Wade Stadium, the West Point
defense contained one of the state's premier quarterbacks and had the game-winning stop on a two-point conversion.
"I love that our defense had to make some plays for us to be able to win tonight," Chambless said. "I thought against a solid quarterback and tempo offense we controlled the speed of the game, and that's so key for us to have any success this season."
Throughout the first half, West Point held Meridian's high-powered spread offense in check and allowed 69 yards to take a 14-0 halftime lead. Meridian, led by dual-threat quarterback J'Mar Smith, had three first downs and four three-and-out drives in the first 24 minutes.
Opponents averaged 33.75 points per game last season against an undersized and inexperienced West Point defense, which is why Chambless wanted to see improved tackling and consistency of that side of the ball. The Green Wave had a fine showing against Smith, who has scholarship offers to Mississippi State, Louisiana Tech, and Memphis. Smith was 16 of 30 for 272 yards and a touchdown. With new MSU quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson on the sidelines evaluating his progress, Smith accomplished most of his damage on busted coverages to wide open receivers, but he struggled to find consistency. Most of Smith's yards came in the second half when the Green Wave were playing prevent coverages. West Point's secondary also made two critical interceptions. One proved to be the game-winner, as Jalen Lee jumped a sideline route and returned the ball 78 yards for a touchdown to put West Point up 20-7 with more than six minutes left in the third quarter. West Point entered the fourth quarter leading 27-7 against a Class 6A team that won 10 games last season and made it to the South Half championship game.
"I thought both sides of the ball did some good things and we got a lot done in the few weeks of time to get our younger kids prepared for the varsity level," Chambless said. "I'm pleased our kids met some challenges and got better individually throughout the spring."
After Meridian seemingly had found the game-tying score with 13 seconds remaining, the Wildcats decided to go for the win with a two-point conversion. Smith rolled to his right, but he tried to throw into traffic over the middle and the ball fell to the ground.
"It was nice to see the defense improve this spring, and I'm pleased with their progress," Chambless said. "The key is making sure we take the small mistakes from a game like this and highlighting them to our kids as we head into summer practices."
After losing its starting backfield from last season, West Point relied on rising senior tailback Lacequiu Starks, who had 18 carries for 120 yards. He set up two short touchdown bursts from quarterback Dason Thomas.
"We are always going to have good tailbacks at West Point," Chambless said. "Our offensive line is full of veterans that allow us to have running holes, and that's the key."
Starks performed in front of former teammate Aeris Williams, who was on the sidelines in MSU apparel after he signed with the Bulldogs this past summer. Starks is the leading contender to be the Green Wave's next workhorse.
"I learned leadership and toughness from Aeris," Starks said. "I look forward for this fall to have more opportunities to help this team move the ball. We should be a good offense after watching older guys do their thing for a couple years."
West Point will open the 2014 season at home against Grenada before traveling to Batesville for the second-consecutive year to face the Class 6A North Half semifinalist South Panola Tigers the following week.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.