Every year, the football teams from Hattiesburg and Laurel high schools line up in “The Battle for the Lil’ Brown Jug,” the longest, continually-played rivalry in Mississippi.
Friday night, the two teams meet in an even more important game with an even larger prize at stake: a potential Class 5A state championship trophy.
The unbeaten Tigers (13-0) will welcome the Golden Tornadoes (9-4) to what is expected to be an over-flowing D.I. Patrick Stadium at 7 p.m. Friday night in the Class 5A South State title game.
The winner will head to Oxford to play in the state championship game at 7 p.m. on Dec. 2.
“It’s not just another game,” Laurel coach Todd Breland said.”Everyone’s excited. There’re the holidays. There’re so many distractions.
“It’s a different week. There’s a lot of trial and error. But a lot of our kids, they’ve been through this before. We understand it and have been through the experience.”
Friday marks Laurel’s fifth consecutive appearance in the South State title game. The Golden Tornadoes have gone 2-2 in their four previous trips, with Laurel winning a Class 5A state championship in 2014 and finishing runner-up in 2016.
The last two years, the Golden Tornadoes have ended the Tigers’ seasons. In 2015, Laurel defeated Hattiesburg in a first-round playoff game. Last season, Laurel held off the Tigers in a second-round game.
Different teams, different years Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance said.
“It hasn’t mattered to us (what’s happened), the last two years, and I don’t think it’s mattered to them (what’s happened) the last two years, either, and it’s not going to matter Friday night,” Vance said. “You have to focus on what’s ahead, and that’s it, and that’s the good thing about high school football.
“We know we’re playing a great football team, and it’s a shame that one us will be done. Two well-coached football teams, two football teams with great athletes. It’s going to boil down to mistakes, turnovers, penalties, who plays the hardest. That’s what it’s going to boil down to.”
The teams met on Aug. 26, with Hattiesburg’s Dexter Jordan intercepting a pass in the end zone on the last play of the game to lock up a 20-14 victory for Hattiesburg in the 2017 Jug Game. The Tigers won the Jug for a fourth consecutive year.
But as important as the Jug game is to both programs and their followers, Breland said he’s been told that Friday night will be the first time the two teams have met with a state title trip on the line since days of the Big Eight Conference.
“We’ve never played each other with this much on the line,” Breland said.
Hattiesburg has been an offensive juggernaut, averaging 423.7 yards total offense a game. In 13 games, only three teams have finished within a score of the Tigers (Laurel, Petal and Picayune), and only Laurel has held Hattiesburg to less than 41 points.
Junior quarterback Jared Conner has been the trigger for the offensive explosions. Conner has completed 57.1 percent of his passes (122-of-213) for 2,210 yards and 23 touchdowns with two interceptions. The former running back has rushed for 1,161 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Senior D’Andre Humbles has caught 36 passes for 891 yards and 11 scores, with junior Darius Ruffin catching a team-high 51 passes for 886 yards and four touchdowns. Senior Raheem Willis has 18 catches for 309 yards and six touchdowns.
Senior running back Fabian Franklin (718 yards, 13 touchdowns) and junior Drexlan Allen (499 yards, 14 touchdowns) have complemented Conner in a ground game that has averaged 220 yards a game.
What’s been overlooked at times has been the play of the Hattiesburg’s defense. While the Tigers have averaged 44.6 points a game, the defense has allowed just 16.4 points a game. Only teams (Petal and Picyaune) have scored more than 28 points.
“They’re not the same team they were the last couple of years,” Breland said. “Their defense has really played well.”
For that matter, so have the Golden Tornadoes.
After splitting a rugged non-region schedule that included Hattiesburg, Petal, Oak Grove and Jackson Callaway, Laurel dropped two of its first four Region 3-5A contests.
But an inexperienced Tornadoes team grew up along the way, settling into their roles, and putting together a five-game winning streak that has included come-from-behind playoff victories at Picayune and over Region 3-5A champion Brookhaven.
Junior quarterback Sinclair Ulmer, who stepped into the starting role after freshman Xavier Evans was injured, has completed 51.8 percent of his passes (85-of-164) for 1,330 yards and 11 touchdowns with three interceptions.
Evans, who has returned to play, has completed 43-of-92 passes for 609 yards and nine touchdowns with five interceptions.
Laurel’s ground game has been bolstered by the mid-season return of junior Michael Terrell from offseason surgery. Terrell has gained 283 yards and scored twice while rounding back into game shape.
In his absence, junior Zias Perryman carried the load, rushing for 1,151 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Senior Juan Nelson leads the Golden Tornadoes with 40 receptions for 498 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Brandon Gordon has a team-best seven touchdown catches among 26 receptions for 395 yards and junior Jontarious Henderson has 21 receptions for 436 yards and three touchdowns.
Laurel has another weapon in senior Juan Lechuga, who has made 6-of-7 field goal attempts this season, with a long of 36 yards.
Vance said Laurel is not the same team that the Tigers saw in August.
“That’s a typical Laurel team,” Vance said. “They get better as the year goes on. You talk about teams getting better, week in, week out, you talk about Laurel, you talk about Petal, teams that find a way to improve every week.”
But Vance said Hattiesburg is not the same team that the Tornadoes saw, either.
“We’ve gotten better, too,” Vance said. “Our quarterback’s gotten better than he was. Our receivers. Both teams have gotten better. Obviously, we know they’ve gotten better. But so have we.
“So, whether it’s this or that, or who’s gotten better, I think we both have, and it’s going to be two great teams going after each other.”