HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - In a football game seemingly played on a Mobius strip of endless offense, where the scoreboard’s 84 points felt almost preordained, it might sound silly to posit that the final outcome, in fact, hinged upon a single play.
But it could be argued that Friday night’s Region 4-5A shootout at D.I. Patrick Stadium between Hattiesburg and Picayune high schools came down to an on-side kickoff that the Tigers executed, recovered and turned into a two-touchdown lead in an eventual 49-35 victory over the Maroon Tide.
Until that point, the game had the feel of an all-nighter, a contest that would be decided at some point by a series of overtimes stacked one atop one another, as each team waited for the other to blink first.
Or make a mistake.
Or, as it turned out, a play.
“What a game,” Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance said.
Following a 21-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Jarod Conner to senior receiver Darius Ruffin to make the score 35-28 near the end of the third quarter, sophomore defensive back Chanse Duckworth, all 5 feet, 5 inches, 145 pounds of him, recovered a beautifully bounding ball laid down by senior place-kicker Gayden Hence.
Officials initially signaled Hattiesburg possession, went into a brief huddle at midfield to confer and shortly confirmed the decision: Hattiesburg football.
Picayune coach Dodd Lee disagreed with the call, emphatically, demonstratively, and wound up about three-quarters of the way across the playing field, a geyser of yellow flags following in his footsteps.
“The rulebook says that on on-side kick, you cannot hit the receiver before he has a chance to make play on the ball,” Lee said postgame after rejoining his team from the locker room where he had spent the final quarter after being ejected from the game.
“I thought they did that.”
The officials disagreed, and after marking off the yardage for multiple unsportsmanlike penalties, Hattiesburg was in business at the Picayune 20-yard line.
Four plays later, Hattiesburg was in the end zone after Conner’s 1-yard leap over the line, and the Tigers had a 14-point cushion after finagling the empty possession _ a stop of a different sort _ that neither team’s defense seemed capable of providing for most of the night.
“We knew this was going to be knock-out, drag-out, man,” Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance said. “Those guys don’t have any quit in them, and I thought our guys matched their intensity, and played their (rears) off.”
And Vance had seen Friday coming from the beginning of the week, remembering the game of the unstoppable offenses at Picayune last season that provided the blueprint for 2018’s version.
It’s why he had the Tigers practicing the on-side kick all week during practice. In fact, Hattiesburg tried one to start the game but was whistled offsides on the play.
But when a second chance arose, the Tigers pulled it off.
“We saw the opportunity to try and kick it on-sides, and it was a perfect kick,” Vance said. “We executed it and it gave us a two-touchdown lead, though a two-touchdown lead against that bunch ain’t safe. But we felt a little bit more comfortable.”
And in the end, that play proved to be the difference, as the two teams wound up trading touchdowns, again, before Picayune’s final offensive possession sputtered out in Hattiesburg territory with less than 90 seconds to play.
The win left the unbeaten Tigers (9-0, 5-0 Region 4-5A) atop the region standings with two regular-season games to play. Picayune (6-3, 4-1) fell in region play for the first time.
“I thought our kids played hard,” Lee said. “I thought they gave it their all.”
Both teams were spellbinding, offensive machines that simply declined to be stopped until they found the end zone.
Of 15 possessions in the game, 12 resulted in touchdowns. In the first half, Hattiesburg scored the three times it had the ball, while Picayune scored on three of its four. The exception: Picayune’s final possession with just 1:04 left in the half.
The second half, Hattiesburg scored the first four times it had the ball, making it seven touchdowns on seven possessions for the Tigers. Picayune scored on its first two possessions of the second half before turning the ball over on downs at the Hattiesburg 41-yard line.
The Tigers then ran out the clock one running play and a kneeldown by Conner.
The teams combined for 901 yards total offense, with Picayune relying on its time-tested running game to the tune of 423 yards of its total 453 yards.
Four of the Maroon Tide’s five scores came on the ground, including two from junior quarterback Jakail Myers (3 yards, 2 yards), another from senior workhorse running back Jortin Raine (4 yards) and junior Kaleb Hart (45 yards).
Raine would finish with 232 yards on 36 carries, while Hart added 81 yards on six carries.
Picayune caught the Tigers flat-footed for its other touchdown, with Myers tossing his one completion in two attempts to wide open senior tight end Danzelle Whitney for a 30-yard touchdown.
The Tigers were more balanced, with Conner completing 12-of-19 passes for 161 yards and four touchdowns. All three scores went to Ruffin, who had scoring catches of 35 yards, 21 yards and 2 yards.
After rushing just three times in the first half for 36 yards and a touchdown, Conner stepped out of the phone booth in the second, carrying 14 times for 160 yards and two touchdowns, including a 59-yard scoring burst on the first possession of the second half.
“I just knew I had to come with it (Friday) if we want to win,” Conner said. “It was just back to the basics.”
All told, Conner rushed for 196 yards on 19 carries, while senior running back Drexlan Allen had 81 yards on 14 carries.
Hattiesburg will travel to Long Beach High School at 7 p.m.. Friday, while Picayune will host Gautier High School.