Noxubee County senior Terry Joiner (32) clutches the Class 4A state championship trophy. Photo by: Stan Beall/Special to The Dispatch
December 2, 2017 8:38:36 PM
OXFORD -- Keymarcus Jackson couldn't wait for the ball to come down.
Playing center field, the Noxubee County High School junior defensive back knew East Central had to throw the ball trailing by six points in the final minute.
That didn't make it any easier to stay patient.
With no one around him as the ball floated into his arms, one thought popped into Jackson's head.
"I just knew we needed to win the game and get it over with because we have been working all year for this," Jackson said.
Jackson's interception with 24 seconds remaining capped a wild afternoon into evening that saw Noxubee County rally from a 14-point halftime deficit to beat East Central 41-35 in the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 4A State title game at Ole Miss' Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The championship is the third in four years for Noxubee County (11-4), and fifth overall. The Tigers ended the season on a nine-game winning streak.
Armoni Clark's 10-yard touchdown pass to Maliek Stallings with 3 minutes, 33 seconds remaining gave the Tigers their first lead. But a missed extra point set the stage for the defense to have to deliver one more stop. On a day the Hornets (13-1) rushed for 400 yards, that seemed like a difficult proposition. But East Central had only one timeout left, so it couldn't afford to stick to the ground.
Still, East Central mixed running and passing plays and capitalized on a chop block against Noxubee County to earn a first down from the Noxubee County 45-yard line with 37 seconds to play.
Jackson knew quarterback Rylee Brown was going to have to go deep, so he was ready.
"I just knew I had to pick it off and get the ball back in our hands so we could win," Jackson said.
The interception inside the 5-yard line and the return set off a wild celebration as the Tigers let out a sigh of relief. Despite losing leading rusher Tony Brown to an apparent shoulder injury in the first half, East Central still averaged 6.8 yards on 59 running plays. But Noxubee County stopped East Central on its final four drives, including once on fourth down in the third quarter to help it rally from a 35-21 deficit.
Brown, a 5-foot-9, 187-pound senior, entered the game with 239 carries for 2,580 yards (10.8 yards per carry) and 45 touchdowns. He had 13 of the Hornets' 17 100-plus yard games. In all, East Central entered the game with 4,686 yards rushing and 72 touchdowns. The Hornets were averaging 360.5 yards rushing per game. They had scored 41 or more points 10 times.
Brown was carted off on a stretcher in the second quarter. His last run was a 3-yard gain on third-and-5 from the Noxubee County 39. Despite his absence, East Central finished that drive with a touchdown and still used its running game to keep Noxubee County on its heels into third quarter.
Noxubee County senior linebacker Terry Joiner said the big stage affected the Tigers. East Central exploited Noxubee County's nerves by scoring on its first two possessions.
"We came out a little bit sluggish, but in the second half we knew we were going to come back and win it," Joiner said.
Brown finished with 14 carries for 108 yards and two touchdowns. Cameron Gray led the Hornets with 13 carries for 202 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown run.
Brown's rushing total was his lowest of the season. He entered the matchup with six games of less than 200 yards rushing.
Noxubee County coach Tyrone Shorter said the Tigers went to a six-man front in the second half in an attempt to negate the effectiveness of East Central's pulling guards. He said the Tigers wanted to force the Hornets to bounce the football outside so they could use their speed to make stops.
"We went to a six-man front and we covered the center and kept them from pulling a lot," Shorter said. "I thought it was a great adjustment. L.C. Clemmons and the linebackers made a lot of plays."
Jackson agreed it felt like the Tigers were playing uphill for most of the afternoon. Still, he said the players had confidence in the adjustments the team made at halftime. He said they just had to stay focused and stick to the game plan.
"Finishing was the key," Jackson said. "We just had to keep going. There was more football to play. We couldn't give up."
Jackson said there is no better feeling to win the game for former offensive coordinator James Patterson, who died of cancer in March 18. The Tigers dedicated the season to Patterson, who believed they had the potential to win a state championship if they stayed on the same page.
"There is no better feeling," Jackson said. "I can't even explain the feeling."
Joiner echoed those sentiments. He said the coaches urged the defense to get stops so it could get the football back to the offense. Noxubee County's offense was equally unstoppable, as senior quarterback Armoni Clark was 28-for-39 for 472 yards and three touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Rashad Eades had 11 catches for 219 yards and a touchdown. Junior wide receiver Kyziah Pruitt had 10 catches for 162 yards.
"The coaches just told us to play our game," Joiner said. "Coach Shorter said we were going to win because they were afraid of our offense. He said if we played our game we would stop them."
Joiner said the Tigers' switch to a six-man front allowed them to cover all of the linemen and enabled the linebackers to flow downhill. He said the Tigers typically go to that set on goal-line situations, but he said they had to make an adjustment to slow down the Hornets.
Still, Joiner and the rest of the Tigers had to wait until the ball settled into Jackson's arms to know they were champions again and they could make Patterson smile one more time.
"Coach P dedicated 38 years to the school, so we had to dedicate one good championship to him," Joiner said. "He said at the beginning of the season we were going to be here. A lot of people doubted us, but look where we're at."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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