When Hattiesburg High School’s sledgehammer-of-a-running back Fabian Franklin left Saturday’s Lil’ Brown Game late in the first quarter with an undisclosed injury, the question became who would carry the burden the rest of the night.
The answer was the Tigers’ mallet-of-a-running back Drexlan Allen.
Allen, a sophomore playing for the first time against archrival Laurel High School, chipped away at a rock-ribbed Golden Tornadoes’ defense for 181 yards on 26 carries to help HHS take a 31-20 victory before second, consecutive packed house at Patrick Stadium.
Allen hammered away on a final, back-breaking drive that started with 5 minutes, 14 seconds, left in the game at the Tigers’ 13 and had to overcome a 15-yard, Hattiesburg deadball foul penalty on the first snap.
Allen gained 65 yards on eight carries in an 11-play, 87-yard, scorched-earth march that took place all on the ground, grinding all but 42 seconds off the clock and putting Hattiesburg safely ahead by two scores.
“Coach always tells me to be ready,” Allen said. “Even when I was a freshman last year, he’d tell me to be ready, to stay ready (on the sideline) right next to him.
“(On the drive), coach just told me, ‘Two hands on the ball, stay focused.’ It feels so good. To play in it and win? It feels so good.”
Hattiesburg (1-1) captured a third, consecutive victory in what is Mississippi’s longest, continuously-played rivalry, a series that dates back to 1922 and was renewed for the 95th time Saturday.
The three-game streak is Hattiesburg’s longest since a similar, three-game stretch in 2008-10, and players paraded the trophy jug in front of the fans in the stands after the postgame handshakes.
“That’s three in a row and we’re proud of our kids because it means so much to this community and so much to this team,” Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance said.
Before the victory-clinching drive, the game started to have the feeling of a reversal of roles from the 2015 contest, which saw Hattiesburg rally for four scores in the final eight minutes to win.
Sparked by senior quarterback Tyquan Ulmer and running back Michael Terrell, the Golden Tornadoes had closed from a 19-point deficit at the end of the third quarter to within 25-20 with 6:18 to play.
But the Tigers kept moving the chains, retaining possession of the football and eating away at the clock and any Laurel momentum.
Quarterback Julian Conner, who carried three times for 44 yards on the final drive, capped the effort when he faked a handoff to the left side, then sped around right end for a 33-yard touchdown.
“Credit Hattiesburg,” Laurel coach Todd Breland said. “They did what they had to do to kill the clock out and that’s what a good team does. We would have liked to have had one more opportunity, but you have to make the most of the ones that you get.”
Twice, Laurel lost fumbles inside the Hattiesburg 5-yard line. But the Tigers also missed opportunities, losing its own fumble inside the Laurel 10-yard line and settling for a pair of Raykell Ducksworth field goals when drives stalled in the red zone.
Both teams also had to overcome themselves, combining for 28 penalties that resulted in 217 negative yards.
Hattiesburg dominated the game early, with Franklin doing much of the damage.
The junior rushed for 82 yards on 11 carries on the Tigers’ first three series, including touchdown runs of 17 yards and 5 yards that put Hattiesburg ahead 13-0 after one quarter.
But Franklin exited soon afterward with an undisclosed injury. He returned to the sideline in a T-shirt and game pants for the second half and seemed to be moving well, cheering teammates and distributing water.
“I don’t know yet,” Vance said after the game. “It’s yet to be determined. We were trying to make a decision, but we’ll find out later (Saturday) night about it.
“But I just can’t say enough about Drexlan Allen tonight.”
Ulmer, who replaced Sinclair Ulmer at quarterback on the second series of each half, helped Laurel pick up the pace in the second quarter.
After a 21-yard Ducksworth field goal extended Hattiesburg’s lead to 16-0, Ulmer rushed for 23 yards on three carries on an eight-play scoring drive that Levi Walker capped with a Walter Payton-like leap over the defense from 3 yards out to cut the Tigers’ lead to 16-6 at halftime.
Ducksworth added a 22-yard field goal for a 19-6 lead with 4:54 left in the third quarter, and Conner put the Tigers up 25-6 with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Shakeenen West on the final play of the period.
Conner would complete 18 of 28 passes for 188 yards, while rushing for 92 yards on 12 carries.
But Terrell would score on runs of 16 yards and 7 yards to get Laurel within striking distance in the fourth quarter.
“It hurts,” Breland said. “But after seeing our kids fight (Saturday night) and grow up a lot, I have no doubt we’ll be better from playing this game.”
Ulmer, who completed six of nine passes for 120 yards, finished with 144 yards rushing on 16 carries, while Terrell had 78 yards rushing on 15 carries.
All told, Hattiesburg rolled up 502 yards total offense, including 314 on the ground, while Laurel finished with 380 total yards.
Hattiesburg will host Collins (0-2) Friday, while Laurel welcomes Oak Grove (1-1) Friday.