HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The last time Jackson Preparatory School visited Presbyterian Christian School, the Patriots broke the at-the-time-unbeaten Bobcats' hearts with a 27-24 victory in the semifinals of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools' playoffs.
Friday night, the Bobcats (4-1) will get their first crack at payback when the Patriots (5-0) return for a 7 p.m. kickoff that will open AAAA-Division I play for both teams.
But for PCS to avenge that loss, the Bobcats will have to come up with their best effort of the season against a JPS team that so far has done nothing but clear the tracks for a sixth consecutive state championship run.
"They're the number one in the state, and there's a reason for that," Hawkins said. "They've got the best running back in the 48 years of the MAIS, so we know we've got quite a challenge."
Hawkins was referring to Jerrion Ealy, a 5-foot-8, 171-pound junior who is attracting FBS scholarship offers like a magnet to steel.
In five games, Ealy has rushed for 539 yards and 14 touchdowns on just 65 carries. He also has hauled in 10 passes for another 204 yards and three more scores, and for good measure, he broke a 75-yard punt return in JPS' 77-20 win last week over Madison St. Joseph Catholic School, a Class 2A program from the Mississippi High School Activities Association.
Consider: The Patriots have scored 32 touchdowns so far this season; Ealy has had a hand in 18 of them.
"He has that really good speed, but I think what makes him so good is the focus he brings to the field, especially in high school, just an attention to detail," JPS coach Ricky Black said. "He's been very effective."
The Patriots have a seasoned senior at quarterback, Chance Lovertich, who has completed 43 of 63 passes for 819 yards and 11 touchdowns with just one interception. The pick is just one of three giveaways JPS has committed in five games, along with two fumbles.
Along with Ealy, senior Clark Beard has come up strong in the passing game, with 197 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches.
Lovertich also serves as JPS' punter, although business has been slow: In five games, the Patriots have punted just six times, averaging 43.3 yards a punt.
With the exception of a 14-3 win over MHSAA's Class 3-A Forest High School, the Patriots have scored no fewer than 42 points in four games and allowed 34, including two shutouts.
The lopsided games have allowed the Patriots to play a slew of players, including four different quarterbacks. Sixteen Patriots have carried the football, while eight different players have caught passes.
The over-by-halftime aspect also has given Black concern heading into Friday.
"Last week was a very unique game," Black said of the St. Joseph contest. "It took two hours to play the first half. They threw almost every down, and for a while there, we were trading touchdowns. They'd score, we'd score, they'd score, we'd score, and that wasn't against (non-starters).
"So, that's one of the things that we've talked about this week is that we're going to have to play a complete game through a full four quarters. I have no doubt about that."
PCS is coming off a 32-22 loss to Lamar High School in Meridian. The teams were tied 15-15 at halftime and PCS trailed 22-15 before an interception and fumble return for a score allowed Lamar to ice the game in the final period.
"We got outplayed and outcoached, simple as that, so hopefully, that got our attention," Hawkins said. "I know this. We're going to have to be super-psyched this week, and we can't afford to make mistakes.
"We can't be behind the chains on these guys. We need to hold the ball, control the ball."
That was a recipe that worked during the 2016 regular season, when an Isaiah Woullard ground game helped the Bobcats beat the Patriots for the first time in the football program's history.
Woullard graduated, but the Bobcats still have remained proficient on the ground, averaging 308.4 yards rushing a game. Senior Sheldon James has run for 693 yards and five touchdowns, while junior Alden Rhian has gone for 352 yards and three touchdowns. Junior tight end/defensive end Tyson Keys has scored twice when employed as short-yardage runner and sophomore Jake Sumrall scored for the first time this season last week.
Sophomore Eric Robinson has become a big-play threat for the Bobcats, running for 147 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries, while adding 185 yards and three touchdowns on nine catches.
Junior quarterback Brandon Thornton has thrown for 415 yards and four touchdowns with five interceptions. He's also rushed for 223 yards and four touchdowns on 36 carries.
"The last few years, you kind of knew where the ball was going," Black said of PCS with Woullard. "Now, they've got a lot of ways to hurt you and a lot more places the ball can go. It's going to be a challenge."