October 29, 2013 7:42:26 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
Bring it on.
That's the mentality any defense has to have when it faces a game-changing situation.
The Heritage Academy football team's defense has been in plenty of those predicaments the past two seasons. A year ago, the Patriots stood at 2-5 and couldn't afford any more losses if they wanted to advance to the playoffs. Thanks to the emergence of a dominating defense, Heritage Academy capped a season-ending five-game winning streak with a victory against Magnolia Heights in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division II state title game.
On Friday night, Heritage Academy faced a Starkville Academy team focused on preventing the Patriots from having a shot at defending their title. The Volunteers rallied from a 14-point deficit and relied on a methodical rushing attack to move 10 yards from the game-winning score with less than two minutes to play.
Heritage Academy's defense rose to the challenge and defended three consecutive passes and then smothered a designed rollout by the quarterback to preserve a 14-10 victory at C.L. Mitchell Field.
The victory helped Heritage Academy (8-2, 3-2 Division II) reach eight wins in the regular season for only the fifth time dating back to 1994. The Patriots reached that mark in 2005 (lost in Class AAA, Division II title game), 1999 (lost to Centreville in Class AAA state title game), 1998, and 1994.
Magnolia Heights' 34-13 victory against Washington School on Friday helped it
retain a half-game lead for first place in Class AAA, District 1, Division II. Heritage Academy will play host to Magnolia Heights at 7 p.m. next Friday. Magnolia Heights edged Heritage Academy 14-13 in a regular-season game last season in Senatobia. The Patriots beat the Chiefs 10-3 in the Class AAA, Division II championship game at Mississippi College in Clinton.
A victory against Magnolia Heights would enhance Heritage Academy's chances of returning to the playoffs, but it wouldn't have been possible without four solid plays from a defense that showed it has a closer's mentality and forgot all the work the Volunteers did to get into the red zone.
"The defense played lights out on those last four plays," Heritage Academy coach Barrett Donahoe said. "We covered up everything and didn't allow them to score. They came up and made a play for us when the guy rolled out. They did a great job."
Starkville Academy (3-6, 1-4) used 10 running plays to move 60 yards. O'Shea Kemp and Noah Heflin plowed Starkville Academy down the field behind an offensive line that executed the inside trap to perfection. Still, the Volunteers needed a 10-yard run by Heflin on fourth-and-7 to keep the drive alive and set up a first-and-goal from the 10.
Unfortunately, Starkville Academy had to burn its final timeout with 1 minute, 33 seconds remaining.
"It really hurt us at the end," Terrill said. "We didn't have any timeouts and we had been able to pound it down their throat, but you don't have the time to do it. It kind of gave us a short stick, and it makes you second-guess the timeout, but we thought we had to have the defensive stop. We got it, so we don't regret that. I am afraid it is just one of those games where you run out of time."
Without the ability to stop the clock, Starkville Academy opted to throw the ball. Quarterback Colt Crestman rolled right and threw incomplete on first down. His second-down attempt also was incomplete. On third down, he lofted a jump-ball pass into th right corner of the end zone for Logan Locke. But Heritage Academy's Cody Mordecai was there to defend the play and received late help from Mark Thatcher.
Mordecai said he was in man-to-man coverage with Locke and that he backpedaled to go with him.
"I had it in my hands, but I let it go," Mordecai. "I should have had it. That is a mistake by me."
The breakup forced a fourth-down call to decide the game. With the play clock running under 10 seconds, Starkville Academy hustled out of the huddle and snapped the football with less than two seconds remaining on the play clock. Crestman rolled right to extend the play and then tried to turn it up field. But Heritage Academy's Hunter Anderson was in position to wrap him up and salvage the victory.
"We were really going to spread them out and try to hit them back inside and hold our breath and hope that it popped," Terrill said. "We were trying to deceive a little bit."
Mordecai said the receivers didn't go out on routes, so he expected Starkville Academy was going to try to run the ball in. Anderson said he had curls and he checked his man and the defense had the quarterback locked up.
"It looked like he was holding it like this (up toward his neck in a ready-to-throw stance), and whenever he tucked it I took off after him," Anderson said. "I think I was a little bit ahead of him,. If he would have cut it back he would have went right into our defense."
Heritage Academy took a knee on the final two plays to run out the clock. Despite not being pleased with his offense, especially in the second half, Donahoe praised the effort of his defense for coming up when it counted the most. He said the Patriots did a better job in the second half of getting off the ball harder and faster and doing slants.
"I applaud our guys for never quitting on us and continuing to play," Donahoe said. "Now we set ourselves up for a big one next week."
Terrill did the same for his players, who rebounded from allowing Heritage Academy to march 80 yards on 14 plays on its opening possession. He knew his players would respond even when they were down by two scores.
"They came out and did some good things, but we felt we missed some tackles," Terrill said. "We got that corrected, and I thought our defense played pretty solid football. You have to give them some credit. They have some weapons and they are going to move the ball some, but we knew we were going to battle back."
Terrill also complimented the play of Crestman, the backup quarterback, for keeping the Volunteers in the game and of Kemp and Heflin at running back. Even though Kemp and Heflin aren't experienced at the position, they did a good job adjusting to what the Patriots took away on a night running back Grant Wolf didn't see a lot of action due to an injury.
"We wanted to try to attack the perimeter and they did a super job and had a super scheme and took it away, so we had no choice but to load up and win between the tackles," Terrill said. "Our kids did a great job coming back in the second half and doing that."
For Heritage Academy, Anderson said the defense has grown accustomed to being in tight situations. Last season, the defense stopped Magnolia Heights on the 1-yard line to preserve a 10-3 title victory.
The Patriots had a few more yards to spare Friday night, but they delivered another effort they hope is championship worthy.
"We have been back and forth all year," Mordecai said. "We have had some good stops and some times when we didn't do so good, but our defense came through."
Said Anderson, "That was make or break for the season. That one right there could propel us into the playoffs.
"Starkville played a heck of a game. All credit to them. Late in the game, I would want our defense out there to make a play. I think our defense can make a play against anybody."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.