August 23, 2014 11:50:42 PM
STARKVILLE -- The Noxubee County High School football team typically doesn't shed tears in August.
Whether it has been under the leadership of M.C. Miller or Tyrone Shorter, the Tigers have developed a reputation for being one of the state's top programs thanks to an aggressive and physical defense.
On Friday night, Noxubee County experienced what it feels like to play against a defense that is as dominating as some of the Tigers' top units of recent years. Starkville, a Class 6A school, held Noxubee County, a Class 4A school, to -2 rushing yards and used its size and strength advantages on both lines of scrimmage to power its way to a 51-19 victory in the season opener for both teams.
The 51 points are the most Noxubee County has allowed since a 52-32 loss to Neshoba Central on Oct. 27, 2006.
In the past seven seasons, Noxubee County didn't allow 30 or more points in a game. Dating back to 1994, Noxubee County had allowed 30 or more points 22 times in 249 games.
In the Tigers' second state title in 2012, the defense didn't allow its 51st point of the season until the ninth game, a 40-13 victory against Houston on Oct. 12. In 2009, when Noxubee County had what some consider to be the program's best defense, the Tigers had 10 shutouts, including the final six games of the regular season. Noxubee County allowed 49 points through 13 games before a 29-14 loss to Itawamba Agricultural High. The 2008 team, which also won a state crown, had seven shutouts and gave up only 20 points in the regular season. The defense didn't surrender its 51st point of the season until the 12th game, which was in the third round of the Class 4A North State playoffs.
In the preseason, several of the Noxubee County players talked about how they wanted this year's defense to rival those units. The Tigers' performance against the Yellow Jackets left some of the players in tears after Shorter shouldered the blame for the loss in his postgame talk and challenged his players to come to practice Monday ready to work hard.
"I have been here 17 years and I can't remember someone scoring 51 points on us," Shorter said. "That is the worst I have seen a Noxubee County defense in a long time. We just have to go back and regroup and watch film and make some changes. If that means playing more guys both ways, we're going to have to do that. Right now, we are not physical enough defensively, and I have never seen us lay this bad defensively.
"I have to give Starkville credit, too. They did a lot of different things to make us look bad. But they were a whole lot more physical football than we were tonight. They just overpowered us. We couldn't get anything going and we couldn't stop them."
Shorter praised the performance of his offense -- in spots. Junior quarterback Timorrius Conner was 18 of 42 for 279 yards and two touchdowns. But Conner also threw three interceptions and overthrew several open receivers. Even though eight receivers caught passes from Conner, the Tigers hurt themselves by dropping five balls and not making plays on at least two others that could have gone for big gains.
Still, better offensive execution only would have kept Starkville's offense on the field longer. As it was, senior quarterback Brady Davis (11 of 18, 183 yards, three touchdowns) didn't play the fourth quarter. Matt Fuller (12 carries, 139 yards) and Jacquez Horsley (13 for 91) helped fuel a ground game that piled up 230 yards on 41 carries.
"I told them I am embarrassed. They should be, too," Shorter said. "We knew coming in we would have to play our best football. I am disappointed and embarrassed because we didn't play Noxubee County football tonight. I am embarrassed for our whole community to come out here and look this bad. I take full responsibility for it, but they better come to work ready to go Monday."
Shorter challenged his seniors to emerge as better leaders and help the coaches re-focus a team that has aspirations of playing in Starkville again in December for a state title at Mississippi State's Davis Wade Stadium.
To get back to Starkville, the Tigers will have to clean up a secondary that appeared to be a step slow in that it allowed the Yellow Jackets to get behind man-to-man coverage too many times. The Tigers also failed numerous times to wrap up and allowed the Yellow Jackets to break through arm tackles for yards after contact. Things like that left Shorter, who was defensive coordinator under Miller when the team won the state title in 2008, shaking his head. He didn't want to use Starkville's size or strength advantage on the offensive and defensive lines as an excuse, but the Tigers' inability to run the football forced Conner to throw on nearly every day, which increased the odds for interceptions.
"You can see at times offensively we can be explosive," Shorter said. "The plays are there. The quarterback is doing a great job. He is reading stuff right and throwing the ball right. Our receivers have to help him. I believe we can be a high-scoring offense. It showed at times tonight, but we have to do a better job of helping him out. We dropped too many passes. I just look at it and say the kids just aren't focused."
Noxubee County appeared to have found its legs in the second quarter. The Tigers snuffed out a pass play for a 7-yard loss and then recorded one of their two sacks on the night to force a punt. Three plays later, Conner hit Kymbotric Mason on a slant route that went for a 50-yard score. The extra point cut Starkville's lead to 17-7. But Starkville needed only five plays to squelch Noxubee County's hopes. Fuller broke off a 41-yard run in which he shook free from a tackler. Later in the drive, Davis hit Horsley on a screen pass that went for 22 more yards. Fuller capped the drive with a 1-yard plunge.
Starkville all but put the game away at the end of the second quarter following its second interception of Conner. Davis helped the Yellow Jackets overcome two penalties with a nifty 30-yard completion to AJ Brown on third-and-18. Davis, a transfer from New Hope High, threw across the field and hit Brown in stride down the left sideline to keep the drive alive. He hit Brown on another slant pass and added a 12-yard pass to Chris Rogers with 16 seconds left in the second quarter to help give Starkville a 31-7 halftime lead.
All told, Starkville piled up 413 yards and left Noxubee County battered and bruised. Shorter hopes the Tigers can have an offense that is as balanced as Starkville High's. First, though, he will have to address concerns about a defense that he felt was woefully lacking compared to what he has seen in past years.
"Defensively, I have some concerns. I really do," Shorter said. "I don't think it is going to be hard to get them ready for next week (to play another Class 6A team, Columbus). I saw a lot of tears tonight on the sidelines and a lot of guys hurt because they are not accustomed to getting beat this bad, and it hurt a lot of feelings tonight. ... We just have to get better defensively."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.