HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Friday night’s Class 5A South State football semifinal between Hattiesburg and West Jones high schools had been forecast by some as the Tigers’ irresistible offensive force against the Mustangs’ immovable object of a defense.
Friday night, although statistically it budged just a bit, the object had more than its day, and yet in the end, it was more than just a solid defense that proved West Jones with a 37-14 conversation stopper of a victory at D.I. Patrick Stadium.
“We played about as well as we can play and Hattiesburg, I think, just had one of those nights they didn’t play well, for whatever reason,” West Jones coach Scott Pierson said. “But we got a lot of breaks. We scored twice off defense and got a kickoff return for 70 yards, inside the 5 (-yard line).
“It was just one of those nights where a lot of things went right for us.”
And led to a reordering of many people’s Classic 5A brackets that likely had Hattiesburg making a second consecutive trip to the state title game.
The Mustangs (11-2) will travel to Picayune High School (10-3), with the winner playing in Dec. 1 Class 5A state championship football game.
The meeting will mark the sixth trip in Pierson’s 17 seasons at West Jones of taking the Mustangs to the South State title game.
“I can say this, it’s probably the biggest that we’ve had since I’ve been here if we win Friday,” Pierson said of the Hattiesburg victory. “If we lose (Friday), it’s just like any other big game we’ve won. Look, all the games are big, but if you don’t capitalize on a big win, it’s just another win.
“I know that sounds cliché, but if we lose South State, it will be the sixth time its happened in the last (17) years, so it’d be just like the other ones.”
The Tigers (12-1) had averaged more than 54 points a game this year in posting its second consecutive unbeaten regular season and then taking down Brookhaven High School in the playoffs’ opening round.
Friday night, Hattiesburg wound up piling up 406 yards total offense against the Mustangs, but three interceptions and two lost fumbles cost the Tigers dearly.
West Jones defensive back Antonie Kirk turned an interception into the last touchdown of the first half with a 63-yard return and Detoruearn Crosby had a 16-yard, scoop-and-score with a fumble in the third quarter for the Mustangs’ final points of the game.
Senior quarterback Jarod Conner also threw an interception on Hattiesburg’s first possession, a high ball that was tipped and batted and wound up in the defender’s hands. That set up the only score of the first quarter, a 22-yard field goal by senior Walker Thompson.
“That’s 17 points we gave them, and you can’t give anybody any points this time of year,” Vance said of the direct cost of some of the turnovers. “You’ve got to give them credit, but turnovers hurting us? Oh, no doubt, first possession.
“Like we had said all along, this was the type of game where you can’t afford to turn the ball over. And we turned it over. We threw three picks, fumbled a couple times. Can’t do that.”
West Jones lost a fumble, but otherwise played a clean game.
The Mustangs also got a solid performance from sophomore quarterback Alan Follis, who completed 6-of-16 passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns. Follis also rushed for 26 yards on nine carries.
“He’s getting better, and the better he gets, the better we are,” Pierson said. “He’s a sophomore, so he still makes some boneheaded decisions, but he’s also got a knack for making the big throw at clutch times, making the big run, avoiding sacks He had a nice game in these circumstances.”
Senior tight end Jalen Graham caught three passes for 39 yards, including TD passes of 20 yards and 12 yards.
“Offensively, the quarterback made some great throws, and it was one of those nights for them,” Vance said. “They wanted it more, so no excuses here. You just have to play better this time of year.
“We’re not going to sit here and make any excuses. They played better than we did. You just wish that you’d have played better.”
The Mustangs grabbed a 23-0 halftime lead on a 2-yard run by sophomore Kentrell Pruitt, Follis’ first scoring pass to Graham and Kirk’s interception return.
Hattiesburg finally got on the board in the third quarter, when Connor found senior Darius Ruffin on a 38-yard touchdown pass to get the Tigers within 23-6.
But Follis and Graham connected for their second score and Crosby picked up a fumble for his touchdown. Those two scores more than offset Conner’s 13-yard run and two-point conversion pass to senior running back Drexlan Allen in the fourth quarter.
Connor threw for 205 yards and a touchdown but was just 16-of-41 and threw three interceptions. Conner ran 126 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, but also was sacked three times by West Jones senior Byron Young.
“Their defense played extremely well,” Vance said. “Byron Young, he’s as good as advertised and as good as I’ve seen in the 21 years I’ve been coaching, and they’ve got some other guys to go along with him up front.”
Ruffin finished with eight catches and 133 yards and as touchdown and Allen had 51 yards rushing on 11 carries.
Kirk turned in a game to remember for the Mustangs. The senior had two catches for 59 yards, returned an interception for a score and had two kickoff returns for 101 yards, including one of 70 yards that set up a West Jones touchdown.
Vance said he hated to see the season come to an end, but said he was proud of what his Tigers had accomplished, especially a group of a seniors who had gone 36-6 over the past three seasons.
“Obviously, this wasn’t way we wanted to end the season and obviously, we would have liked to have played a lot better,” Vance said. “But we’ll bounce back and regroup and try to put together another great team next year.
“And that’s what I told our players (Friday) night. We’re not going to hang our heads about a 12-1 record. Obviously, it wasn’t the outcome we wanted, but there’s a lot of teams in this state that would gladly trade for our record.”