Just two weeks ago, Dexter Jordan approached Hattiesburg High School football coach Tony Vance and asked if he could come back and pick back up a sport he hadn’t played in two years.
Saturday night, Jordan became part of the lore of the Battle for the Lil’ Brown Jug.
With the Tigers clinging to what had seemed a quasi-comfortable six-point lead less than two minutes before, Jordan intercepted a Xavier Evans pass at Hattiesburg’s 3-yard line on the game’s final play to preserve a 20-14 victory “Between the Bricks” at Blair Stadium.
Jordan’s game-saver in the 96th edition of a rivalry first played in 1922 capped a remarkable second half that ended with the Hattiesburg sideline erupting in celebration as a half dozen Laurel High School players collapsed on the field.
“It just feels really good,” said Jordan, who was seeing his first playing time of the season. “There’s nothing better. It’s my senior year and this is something that I really love.
“I took a couple years off from it, and I really wanted to do it again, so I came back.”
For a second consecutive week, interceptions proved the difference for Hattiesburg (2-0).
In the season opener, the Tigers came up with three interceptions and Raykill Ducksworth 87-yard return for a touchdown provided the game-winning points in a 43-37 win at Petal High School.
Saturday night, linebacker Braxton Thomas undercut an out route early in the fourth quarter and returned the interception about 18 yards to set up the Tigers’ go-ahead touchdown drive.
Jordan’s pick not only snuffed Laurel’s last chance on a second-and-10 just outside of the Hattiesburg 10-yard line, but assured The Jug would remain between tiger paws for a fourth consecutive season.
The streak matches the longest for Hattiesburg since a four-game winning streak from 1993 to 1996.
“When you come Between the Bricks or you come to D.I. Patrick (Stadium in Hattiesburg), if it’s the Lil’ Brown Jug, it ain’t going to be easy,” Vance said after celebrating with his team, coaches and fans. “It’s always going to be interesting, I can promise you that.
“But for our seniors, that makes them undefeated in The Jug game, and that’s something that they will always cherish and remember. I’m excited for those guys and excited for the City of Hattiesburg. Mayor Barker, congratulations, you’ve got your first Jug win.”
For Laurel (1-1), it was an agonizing evening that never saw the Golden Tornadoes trail until the last seven minutes of the game.
After junior quarterback Jarod Conner scored his second rushing touchdown of the night on a 1-yard run with 6 minutes, 39 seconds, to play to give the Tigers a 20-14 lead, Laurel went three-and-out, nearly losing fumble deep in its own territory before being forced to punt.
Hattiesburg managed three first downs, whittling the clock down to under two minutes and forcing the Golden Tornadoes to burn their last two timeouts.
After getting the ball back at its own 20 with 1:46 to go, senior receiver Juan Nelson took a reverse around the right side and sped 49 yards to the Tigers’ 31-yard line. Three snaps later, Laurel was looking at a fourth-and-1 from the 22-yard line.
Evans found senior Kobie Ulmer for enough yardage for a first down, but the Tigers had been flagged for defensive holding, giving the Golden Tornadoes a first down just outside the 10 with 12 seconds to play.
An Evans pass fell incomplete and outside the left edge of the end zone and on the last play, Jordan was in the perfect position in the middle of the Tigers’ defense just in front of the goal line.
“That same formation, I read it really well,” Jordan said. “They were trying to get something over the middle, and squeeze our (middle) linebacker, so I dropped back, and he threw the ball right to me.”
Laurel coach Todd Breland said his team showed plenty of guts.
“We ran that reverse, just trying to get a little juice, try and get something going, and it flipped the field for us, gave us a chance,” Breland said. “We got down there and had a couple shots. That’s all you can ask for at the end of it.”
Vance said Hattiesburg’s defense stepped up, particularly with the game-changing interceptions.
“Just a great play right there by Dexter Jordan, and there was another big pick right before by Braxton Thomas,” Vance said. “Two great plays by defensive guys. I’m proud of our defense. I thought we grew up (Saturday night) and played a heckuva ballgame.
“Offensively, we struggled a bit and didn’t execute the things we should have executed, but, hey, the defense picked us up and got us a victory, and that’s what it’s all about.”
The game started relatively slow, with each team turning the ball over early in the first quarter. After turning Hattiesburg away on downs after the Tigers’ had reached the Laurel 24-yard line, the Golden Tornadoes went 76 yards for the game’s first score. Evans contributed 33 yards on three carries and junior Zias Perryman capped the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run and a 7-0 Laurel lead.
The Tigers tied the game in the second quarter, when Conner went in from 3 yards away to finish off an 87-yard drive that saw Hattiesburg convert three, third downs and one fourth down to keep the drive alive.
Each team scored in the third. Evans found Nelson in stride down the near sideline with a gorgeous rainbow pass for a 51-yard touchdown on the opening possession of the second half, but after returning the kickoff to midfield, Hattiesburg needed just five plays to tie the game on a 15-yard pass from Conner to D’andre Humbles.
Conner went 3-for-3 on the drive for 51 yards.
“I thought I had a good game, but I’ve got to improve on some things, though,” said Conner, who completed 6 of 9 passes in the second half for 79 yards and ran 14 times for 56 yards in the final two periods.
Thaxton’s interception came early in the fourth quarter, after a bad snap had left Laurel looking at a second-and-20. Conner carried on five of the seven snaps in the 30-yard drive, zipping into the end zone through a hole over right guard.
“I cut underneath the route on their number one receiver and it came directly to me,” Thaxton said. “We got a little nervous (at the end), but we had to keep our intensity going.
“But it feels good, man. We won my senior year, and we’ve won four years in a row. We got a little nervous, but this is fun. Nerves are a part of life.”