November 14, 2010 1:45:00 AM
MACON -- Defense wins championships.
While exceptional offenses bring home trophies too, that is the rule Noxubee County High School football coach Tyrone Shorter lives by. His words rang true Friday night as his Tigers moved one step closer to realizing that goal with a 12-6 win against Center Hill in the second round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A playoffs.
Noxubee County took the opening kickoff, but the defense was called on seconds later as the receiver fumbled, giving Center Hill the ball on the Tigers'' 29-yard line. That set up a scenario that played out the rest of the game: The Tigers'' offense gave the Mustangs an opening, only to have the defense deny them.
The Tigers'' defensive line stuffed play after play and allowed the offense to take over at its 38.
Sophomore rushing leader Darrell Robinson pushed the ball out to midfield, but the offense appeared to stall when a pass to junior Terrence Barron was called back by a holding penalty.
Noxubee County gave the ball to junior tailback Ladarrell Hunt, who bounced off tacklers until he turned the corner and rumbled to the Mustangs'' 43.
Two plays later, a reverse to Barron allowed the receiver to hit the line full speed at an angle and gain the sideline. Before Center Hill knew what hit it, Barron was crossing the goal line to take a 6-0 lead.
But Center Hill''s spirit was not broken.
The Mustangs took the ball at the 35 and drove it inside Noxubee County''s red zone. The drive stalled, and Center Hill settled for three points to start the second quarter.
The Tigers tried to answer, but a botched handoff to Robinson led to a turnover that the Mustangs scooped up and returned to the Tigers'' 19.
But Noxubee County''s defense answered the call. The Tigers denied Richard Hampton, who entered the game averaging 111 rushing yards per game, and forced a field goal attempt that missed wide left.
The Tigers took over at their 20, and Hunt took a handoff through the left side of the line into open ground. Hunt appeared to be trapped, but a spin move here, a juke there, and a leap over a diving defender brought the Macon crowd to its feet. Hunt broke at least five tackles until he was dragged down at Center Hill''s 11.
Three plays later, sophomore Deangelo Ballard found Hunt wide open in the end zone and rewarded him with a 7-yard touchdown that made it 12-3 with 6:45 remaining in the first half.
The Tigers took that lead into the half, but it was clear their coaches and fans expected more.
The second half played out like the first, with the Tigers making plays but often doing the Mustangs'' job for them as well. Another fumble by Robinson stopped a scoring drive on Center Hill''s 27. The Mustangs capitalized with a field goal to end the third quarter that put the game within reach.
The score remained 12-6 with 2:01 remaining when a touchdown throw from Ballard on fourth down finally seemed to put the Mustangs away. However, the umpire ruled he had crossed the line of scrimmage.
Center Hill took the ball with no timeouts and moved across midfield to the Noxubee County 43 on two quarterback keepers by Jacob Marsh that rocked a defense suddenly unable to stop the run.
However, a stoppage at 1:21 to check for measurement also allowed the Tigers to regain their footing, and they stuffed the Mustangs until a desperation fourth-down pass by Marsh fell to the ground with 14 seconds left.
The celebration in the stands lasted longer than the one on the field, as Shorter pulled his players into a grim huddle on their 30 and told them they had barely escaped with a win.
Shorter didn''t mince words after dismissing his team.
"I''m not happy. Too many turnovers," he said. "You can''t get in the playoffs, a good team like Center Hill, and turn over the ball like we did tonight. Four or five turnovers. We were blessed tonight. You know in a playoff game like this, too many turnovers, you lose."
Had it not been for his defense, he said things could have turned out differently.
"Defense kept us in the ballgame all night," he said. "Opening kickoff, we fumbled the ball. They got it on the 25 and we stopped them. Defense won this ballgame tonight. I''m satisfied with the offense, but I''m not satisfied with the fumbles. We''re young, a sophomore running back and a junior running back, they just put the ball on the ground. The junior did good. The sophomore just had a bad night and fumbled the ball two or three times."
Hunt might have saved the Tigers'' season with his 69-yard scamper from scrimmage and subsequent touchdown catch.
"(When I got that big run) it gave us the momentum," he said. "Our line said we gotta start picking it up and blow out the ball. They know it''s a big playoff game, and they''re not letting nobody up front beat them."
However, as Shorter always says, defense wins championships and it was the defense, led by senior linebacker Corey Williams, who slammed the door in Center Hill''s face in the end.
"We play strong, and we never give up," Williams said. "Our defense is strong mentally and physically also, and we kept on going and going to give our offense a shakeback, and keep the momentum of the game. We never gave up and kept on fighting until the end."
If Noxubee County is going to have a chance at another championship, Shorter said it will have to eliminate the mistakes and turnovers.
"I keep stressing to the kids, every game is going to be hard," he said. "We might as well get ready for it. I think with our offensive line and our running backs we can do it. We just can''t turn the ball over."
Noxubee County will take on Shannon, a 42-8 winner against Greenwood, at 7 p.m. Friday.