HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - After a dominating first-half performance, Oak Grove High School found itself staring at a 28-28 tie with archrival Petal High School Friday night at the start of the final period.
Oak Grove merely went back to scoring, using three touchdown runs to finally cage the visiting Panthers and take a 48-35 victory in the Class 6A South State semifinals.
“Nobody panicked,” said Oak Grove quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, who accounted for six of the Warriors’ seven touchdowns. “We knew the game was tied, but I told the guys, ‘Hey, they have to score another touchdown to go up. It’s not like we’re losing this game.’”
And the Warriors didn’t, as Plumlee finished with 207 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 16 carries and completed 13-of-18 passes for 170 yards and three more scores
Oak Grove (11-2) will travel to Brandon High School at 7 p.m. Friday to play for the South State championship.
The Bulldogs (13-1) advanced to the South State title game by defeating archrival and defending Class 6A champion Pearl High School 34-33 in overtime.
“We’re just glad to be playing another week,” Oak Grove coach Drew Causey said. “We told them in the (postgame) huddle, “We get to run on Monday.’
“But that was great game. They’ve got a great football team and hats off to them for having a heckuva season.”
Friday’s game served as a microcosm of the Panthers’ season, with Petal (6-7) getting off to a slow start before settling in and settling down to business.
“I told them to keep their heads up,” Petal coach Marcus Boyles said. “When it was 28-7, it was just like our season, when we were 1-6 and everybody counted us out, and we fought right back and made a game of it.”
Petal had only 18 offensive snaps in the first half, just six in the first quarter, as Oak Grove dominated the game clock and scoreboard early.
Senior wideout Kevin Barnett, who missed the regular season recovering from knee surgery, returned for the start of the playoffs. Last week, Barnett had five catches for 91 yards and a score in the Warriors’ 45-14 win over Harrison Central High School.
Friday night, Barnett caught seven passes for 85 yards, including two of Plumlee’s three first-half scoring tosses. His 19-yarder put the Warriors up 7-0 on the game’s opening drive and his 12-yard score left Oak Grove ahead 14-7.
“Like I said last week, it’s nice to have him back,” Plumlee said.
Plumlee, who scored on a 35-yard run in the second quarter, also found Liam Breithaupt from 13 yards out as the Warriors scored on their first-half possessions, outgained the Panthers 291 yards to 70 yards total offense and converted on all eight of their third-down opportunities..
And yet, Oak Grove led only 28-14, thanks in large part to Rashad Handford.
Petal’s junior running back returned Oak Grove’s opening kickoff 73 yards to the Warriors’ 5-yard line, where three plays later, fellow junior running back Micah McGowan, banged into the end zone from a yard out to tie the score 7-7.
Then, after Oak Grove scored on three, consecutive possessions and looked to have the seized control of the game, the Panthers answered.
Handford ripped off a 39-yard run to set Petal up inside the Oak Grove 5-yard line, and on fourth-and-goal, junior quarterback DeCarlos Nicholson found senior receiver Trent Williams on a jump ball in the corner of the end zone with 25 seconds left in the first half.
The Panthers took the opening kickoff of the second half 59 yards for a touchdown, with Handford scoring on an 8-yard run.
After forcing Oak Grove’s first punt of the game, the Panthers put together a 54-yard march that straddled the third and fourth quarters. Nicholson scrambled 24 on a second-and-23, down to the Oak Grove 14, and Handford took the next handoff for a touchdown that tied the game.
“We only had the ball only a few times in the first half, so we really didn’t have a chance to run our offense,” Boyles said.
But as soon as it seemed to get cranked, the Warriors jammed the engine, first scoring on offense on Plumlee’s 9-yard run and then forcing Petal into a punting situation.
The Panthers tried a fake punt, but failed, setting up a short field that the Warriors turned into a 31-yard touchdown run by senior Jarius Smith on a fourth-and-a-short-2 yard opportunity.
Smith, who returned for the final game of the regular season after overcoming an injury, rushed for 133 yards and a score on 22.
“I knew with (Barnett) and Jarius coming back, that we two legit weapons coming back that would change our offense,” Causey said. “And they’ve shown that in these two (playoff) ballgames.”
Smith’s run ‘round end put the Warriors ahead by two scores. Petal got back within 42-35 when Nicholson connected with Handford for a 23-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-8.
But Plumlee, as he has so many times in the past, kept the ball in his hands, found a crease in the middle, slipped a few tackles, and then jumped on the gas, galloping 80 yards for a back-breaking touchdown with 2:53 to play.
“I knew about 5 yards out that he was going to score,” Causey said.
Handford ran for 93 yards and two scores on 14 carries, while McGowan added 32 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
Nicholson rushed for 63 yards on 14 carries and he completed 6-of-13 passes for 44 yards and two touchdowns.
“They played their (rears) off (Friday) against a very talented football team, a team that has a really legitimate chance to win a state championship this year,” Boyles said.