From the second the football hit gloved hands, Hattiesburg High School cornerback Raykill Ducksworth knew he was touchdown-bound Saturday night against Petal High School.
I knew it was mine, and knew I had to get it in the end zone,” Ducksworth said. “I was gone. The end zone was mine.”
Ducksworth’s 87-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the third quarter not only snuffed a Petal drive deep into Hattiesburg territory, but turned out to be the winning points as the Tigers held on for a 43-37 victory at Panther Stadium.
“That’s a really good football team we just played, and they’re going to win a lot of football games,” Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance said. “But for us to come over here and come out with a victory, I’m super proud of these guys and this entire football team.”
Hattiesburg junior safety Tadrian Leflore sandwiched a pair of interceptions around Ducksworth’s “pick six.” The first came on the third snap of the game and set up Hattiesburg’s first touchdown of the game. His second snuffed out a Petal scoring threat at the Hattiesburg 1-yard line with a little less than 8 minutes left in the game.
“Coach always says, ‘assignment, alignment, technique and effort,’ and that’s what I tried to do,” Leflore said. “In my heart, I thought we played up to our capabilities. We messed up a couple things, but we bounced back.”
The interceptions loomed large in a game that saw two potent offenses take turns assaulting the scoreboard, aided by short fields courtesy of big plays/mistakes on special teams.
Three of Hattiesburg’s scoring drives started in Petal territory: the 47-yard line (interception); 39-yard line (shanked punt); and 20-yard line (kickoff return).
Likewise, three of Petal’s scoring drives started on Hattiesburg’s side of the field: 16-yard line (fumble recovery); 45-yard line (punt from Hattiesburg 5-yard line); and 36-yard line (kickoff return).
Excellent kickoff returns also set up Petal scoring drives from the Panthers’ 40- and 47-yard lines.
The short fields led to relatively modest yardage totals in a game where the teams combined for 10 offensive touchdowns and a field goal. Hattiesburg gained 304 total yards, including 165 yards rushing. Petal collected 298 yards, including 200 yards passing.
Petal junior quarterback Jordan Wilson completed 16 of 35 passes for 200 yards, including a touchdown pass each to seniors Nataurean Watts (seven catches, 104 yards) and Natorian Watts (eight catches, 99 yards). Sophomore running back Micah McGowan gained 78 yards on 11 carries and scored on touchdown runs of 26 yards, 6 yards and 5 yards. Nataurean Watts added 56 yards on three carries, including a 54-yard run.
Hattiesburg rushed for four touchdowns, with junior quarterback Jarod Conner (3 yards), junior running back Drexlan Allen (3 yards), senior running back Fabian Franklin (6 yards) and senior receiver D’andre Humbles (10 yards) scoring one apiece.
Conner, who made his debut as Hattiesburg’s starting quarterback, completed 11 of 25 passes for 139 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown pass to junior Darius Ruffin (six catches, 98 yards).
Conner led the Tigers’ rushers, with 76 yards on 16 carries, including a game-sealing, second-effort, 15-yard run for a first down on a third-and-4 at the Petal 36 with less than two minutes to play and the Panthers out of timeouts.
“Coach has me at that position because I can run and throw,” said Conner, who played tailback last season. “It felt great (Saturday) night.”
Allen added 61 yards on 14 carries, while Franklin had 40 yards on 10 carries.
Sophomore Kendyl Terrell, who was discovered on the women’s soccer field, kicked five extra points in her Hattiesburg debut, while Conner threw for a two-point conversion.
Hattiesburg jumped to a 14-0 lead. Leflore’s interception set up a 47-yard drive capped by Conner’s 3-yard run, and after a 17-yard Petal punt, the Tigers went 39 yards to score on Allen’s 3-yard run.
But Petal rallied in the second quarter.
McGowan finished off a 66-yard drive with a 5-yard run, and on the ensuing kickoff, Humbles was leveled and fumbled the ball away at the Hattiesburg 16. One play, later, Wilson found Nataurean Watts for the score. The extra point was partially blocked, but Petal had gotten back to 14-13.
The Panthers took a 16-14 lead on Blake Craig’s 34-yard field goal with 5:08 left before halftime, but Hattiesburg went 74 yards in six plays, including a 42-yard hook-up between Conner and Ruffin, to take a 21-16 lead on Franklin’s 6-yard run with 3:16 left in the second quarter.
Back came Petal. Nataurean Watts returned the kickoff to the Hattiesburg 36-yard line, and from there, the Panathers needed just four plays and two Hattiesburg offside penalties to cover the distance. McGowan scored on a 26-yard run, giving Petal its final lead, 23-21, with 2:11 to play before halftime.
But the Tigers returned the favor. Senior Raheem Willis took the kickoff down to the Panthers’ 20-yard line, and Conner hit Ruffin with a 4-yard touchdown pass with 27.7 seconds left in the first half. Terrell’s extra point put the Tigers up 28-23 at the break.
Humbles’ 10-yard run put the Tigers out front 35-23, but Petal answered immediately, with Wilson finding Natorian Watts with a 43-yard touchdown pass to get the Panthers back to 35-30.
Petal forced a Hattiesburg punt, and seemed buried at its own 5-yard line. But Nataurean Watts broke off a 54-yard run and the Panthers drove to the Hattiesburg 26-yard line before Wilson tried to hit Natorian Watts on a quick slant. The ball was just beyond Watts’ reach, grazing off his fingers before zipping into the hands of Ducksworth who sped down the near sideline for a 43-30 Hattiesburg lead.
Petal came right back, scoring with 30.9 seconds left in the third quarter on McGowan’s 6-yard run to pull back within six points.
But that’s as close as the Panthers would get. Leflore’s second interception ended a Petal drive that had reached the Hattiesburg 25-yard line, and Hattiesburg would force a three-and-out the second time the Panthers had the ball in the fourth quarter.
Petal would not get the ball back as the Tigers ran the final 2:39 off the clock with two first downs on seven running plays.
The Tigers will stay on the road Friday, traveling to Laurel High School for the renewal of the Battle for the Little Brown Jug, while the Panthers will host Gulfport High School.