In a Friday night football game filled with fumbles and flags, gargantuan plays and goal-line stands and a second-half that left spectators and players near breathless, the game ended with an emotional eruption of red-and-white as a fallen Warrior in black-and-gold lay spent on the field in tears.
Petal and Oak Grove high schools added another page to their long-time rivalry that neither will forget as the Panthers took back home a 41-37 victory over the Warriors.
Nataurean Watts, playing through the pain of a bruised tailbone that kept him sidelined for a good chunk of the second half, slashed 49 yards through the middle of the field for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown run with 1 minute, 23 seconds, to play.
But the Panthers couldn’t celebrate until they came up with their third, goal-line stand of the game, sacking Oak Grove High quarterback Jon Rhys Plumlee on the final play of the night to thwart a drive that had reached the Petal 6-yard line.
“It’s amazing, amazing,” said Watts, who was injured late in the first half on a hit out-of-bounds that spent him sprawling on his back against the cement walk behind the Oak Grove bench.
“Everybody was talking, everybody doubting us, but we came out here and played hard.”
And in the end, Petal (3-3, 1-1 Region 6-3A) avoided an 0-2 start to region play that would have out the Panthers in a deep hole in what likely will be a brutal scramble for the four playoffs slots in the eight-team region.
“We had to even our record, 1-1,” Petal coach Marcus Boyles said. “You don’t want to go 0-2 in this region. The biggest thing is we’re 3-3 also. We’ve been in every game, and (Friday) night, we finished.”
And, gracious, what a finish, as the Oak Grive defense and Plumlee’s heroics had appeared to have brought the Warriors back from a 34-29 deficit.
After a 16-play, 61-yard drive that reached the Petal 2-yard line came up empty after an errant snap resulted in a 26-yard loss, Oak Grove (4-2, 1-1) finally stopped the Panthers after two first downs and four minutes slipping off the clock.
Punter Seth Williamson, who was brilliant all night (42-yard average on five punts), pinned Oak Grove at the 10-yard line with a 33-yard punt with 2:06 to play, and the Warriors were flagged for illegal motion on first down to back them to the 5-yard line.
But Plumlee took the shotgun snapped, paused, and then shot through the middle of the Petal defense line a greyhound chasing a hare. Thirteen seconds, 95 yards and Plumlee’s two-point conversion run later, Oak Grove had a 37-34 lead with 1:50 left the game.
“As soon as we called, I knew it was there,” Oak Grove coach Drew Causey said.
But after the kickoff, Petal started at its 36-yard line, and Oak Grove’s 10th penalty of the night, a pass interference call, brought the ball to the Oak Grove 49. Watts, who had caught a 14-yard scoring pass in the first half, and ripped off a 35-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, broke clean through the middle, cut back past one defender and ran past the grasping arms of two other Warriors on the way to the end zone.
“There was no panic when they scored,” Boyles said. “I heard our offensive guys saying, ‘Let’s take it and score, let’s take it and score.
“They came out and they gave us two-man (coverage), left five guys in the box, and we felt like we could block it. Phat (Watts), with that bruised tailbone, he made a heckuva run when he had to.”
Plumlee, who scored on a pair of touchdown runs in the first half and threw a 9-yard scoring pass to receiver Kevin Barnett and a 75-yarder to Deltarus Thompson in the third quarter, led the Warriors down the field with 1:23 to play.
He ran for a 10-yard gain on the first play, then completed 3 of 4 passes to get the Warriors down to the Petal 11-yard line. Plumlee ran for 5 yards on first down, but two incompletions set up the final play on fourth-down from the 6 with 7 seconds to play.
Plumlee rolled to his right, but then tried to reverse field, where he was met head on at the 10-yard line by safety Kobe Windham and cornerback Marquis Bridges.
“We just have to play better,” Causey said. “We just didn’t play well enough to win.”
Indeed. Oak Grove came away from three trips inside the Petal 10-yard line with just three points, and the Warriors hurt themselves with 10 penalties for minus 107 yards and fumbled six times, losing two.
“Our defense gave up some big plays out in the middle of the field, but when they got to the red zone, they stopped them, and that’s where it counts,” Boyles said. “You’ve got to keep them out of the end zone.”
The Panthers, who gained 347 total yards, got a big night from quarterback Jordan Wilson. He threw four touchdown passes, including two to Trent Williams and another to Watts in a first half that ended with Petal leading 21-17 after scoring with just 6 seconds to play on a 22-yard pass to Williams.
Wilson found, Watts’ twin, Natorian Watts, with a 43-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive of the second half for a 28-17 lead before Oak Grove rallied.
Plumlee’s pass to Bennett cut the lead to 28-23, and his 75-yarder to Thompson put the Warriors ahead 29-28 with 5:03 left in third quarter.
Nataurean Watts capped a 70-yard drive with his 35-yard run, setting up the fourth-quarter fireworks.
“Offensively, it was the best we played all year,” Boyles said. “We finally put it all together. We competed for four quarters. It wasn’t always pretty, but Oak Grove’s pretty good on defense.”
Wilson completed 15 of 26 passes for 189 yards with an interception. Nataurean Watts rushed for a game-high 129 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries and caught three passes for 31 yards and a score.
Williams finished with three catches for 40 yards and two touchdowns, while Natorian Watts had two catches for 58 yards and a touchdown.
The Warriors piled up 508 yards total offense. Plumlee, who rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries, completed 16 of 27 passes for 260 yards, including 13 of 20 for 199 yards in the second half.
Barnett caught nine passes for 115 yards and a touchdown, while Thompson had two catches for 88 yards and a score.
Running back Orlando Simon finished with 112 yards on 17 carries.
Oak Grove will visit Meridian High School at 7 p.m. Friday. The Wildcats (2-4, 1-1) lost 34-17 to Pearl High School Friday.
Petal will host Brandon High School at 7 p.m. Friday. The Bulldogs (4-3, 2-0) beat George County 49-7 Friday.