October 22, 2010 10:38:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- With three football games remaining in the regular season, all eyes are toward the playoffs.
Starkville High''s last-gasp, one-point loss to Southaven created a logjam in Class 6A, Region 1, where four teams could end the weekend tied for second in the region.
Don''t think football coaches are already thinking beyond Friday?
Starkville High head coach Jamie Mitchell isn''t afraid to say so.
"We talk about that on Sundays," Mitchell said. "We put everybody''s schedule on the board and look at who everybody''s got, and I believe that Southaven, right now, has the easy way to go. They''ve got the two (region teams) on the bottom and the one on the top, and you gotta figure they''ll win two of those. So they''ll be tough to catch.
"You can look at it a million ways."
Mitchell calls the division playoff race as a "mess," pointing out Tupelo''s win over Southaven, which beat Olive Branch. The Yellow Jackets (5-3, 3-1) beat Tupelo but fell to the Chargers.
All the more reason Friday''s 7 p.m. road match against Olive Branch (4-4-1, 2-2) is a must-win game.
Mitchell feels his Jackets have one of the more difficult roads to finish out the regular season, though their two games against South Panola and Columbus are at home.
Starkville''s loss to Southaven was its third by a touchdown or less this season, and Mitchell is keen to have his players continue on the same path.
"We''ve got three losses and just as easy could be sitting here undefeated," he said. "We''re not, but we''ve got to play like we are. Good things are going to continue to happen over the long run, and we know that. Keep doing what we''ve been doing.
"There''s five or six quality teams in the league, and if you get down over a loss you''re fixing to get your teeth kicked in on the next one."
Starkville offensive tackle Jarrod Atterberry said the loss to the Chargers was initially the biggest disappointment the team faced in an otherwise breakout season.
Some down time helped change Atterberry''s mind, though he stopped short of saying the region loss was a good thing for the Jackets, who''d won four straight up to that point.
"I thought about it all weekend and I think it helped us get back together as a team," Atterberry said. "We decided we wanted to work harder to not get down and get toward the goal of the playoffs and state championship game."
The Conquistadors, winners of two straight following routs of Horn Lake and DeSoto Central, escaped Starkville with a 27-13 win last season. In that game, the Jackets had an interception returned for a touchdown and crucial turnovers that led to their loss.
Last week, the Jackets had an interception returned for a touchdown and a costly fumble inside the Chargers'' 20-yard line.
The correlation between turnovers and losses is clear for Mitchell.
"That''s one thing we''ve been good about, and we had two turnovers that just killed us last week," Mitchell said. "I think we''re about a plus-11 in the turnover margin, and that''s why we are where we are. We just have to continue to do a good job of taking care of the ball."
Kicking game woes
For all of Starkville''s marked improvements this season, there''s been one troubling area that''s stood out: special teams.
Kickoffs, mainly, have been the source of field position headaches for the Jackets, who''ve had up-and-down performances from kicker Daniel Fumo and busted assignments in coverage.
The fact Starkville''s kickoff woes can''t be pinpointed to one area is even more frustrating, Mitchell said.
"I don''t know, it''s been an Achilles heel for us," Mitchell said. "It''s been one of the areas, probably the only area, that''s stood out where we had major problems. I wish I had the answer, but we''re going to continue to get it right."
The Jackets have moved the majority of their starters, including quarterback Jaquez Johnson and running back Garrett Smith, to special teams. Starkville even elevated freshman kicker Charlie Henderson to varsity in hopes of adding competition for Fumo.
"He''s in the mix," Mitchell said of Henderson. "And if you''ve been to any of our games, you know we''ve got some kicker and coverage issues. I can assure our fans we''re working as feverishly on that as anything. We''re trying to get that fixed. You go to a game on Friday and it doesn''t look like we''ve done anything different. But we''re trying our hardest to get the right coverage people and the right kicker out there."