Laurel seizes Jug from Hattiesburg, 35-19

High School Highlights: Hattiesburg at Laurel

LAUREL, Miss. (WDAM) _ For a long, horrible moment in the fourth quarter Friday night, Laurel High School football coach Todd Breland was overcome with a brief, de ja vu moment that he had no interest in reliving.

Hattiesburg High School had cut a Golden Tornadoes’ lead from comfortable to catchable, pulling to within 16 points with 1 minute, 58 seconds to play.

To an outsider, that advantage still may appear cushy. But just four years earlier, Breland had seen Hattiesburg rally from 32-6 deficit with less than 4 minutes to play to pull out a win over its archrival in Mississippi’s longest, continuous high school football rivalry, the Battle for the Lil’ Brown Jug.

So, when the Tigers scored and then recovered an on-side kick, Breland was flooded with unwanted memories.

“I didn’t know I could hold my breath for as long as I did at the end of the game,” Breland said. “The past started coming up. Nobody mentioned it, but it was there.

“This time, we closed it out.”

Indeed. The Golden Tornadoes intercepted a red-zone pass with 41 seconds remaining to seal a 35-19 victory “Between the Bricks” at Blair Stadium that snapped a five-game losing streak to the Tigers and returned the Lil Brown Jug to Laurel for the first time since 2014.

“Proud to have it home,” Breland said.

Hattiesburg not only saw Laurel regain a five-game edge in the overall series, 49-44-5, but the Tigers are now 0-2 in a season for the first time since it last lost a Jug game, 2013.

Laurel junior quarterback Xavier Evans watched along the edge of his teammates’ celebration, taking in the circle of pogo freestylists, bouncing and boinging in a swirl around The Jug.

“This was big,” said Evans, who ran for a pair of scores and threw for two more. “They had it for a couple of years and it feels good to get it back.”

Likely as bad as it felt to give it back.

“We didn’t play well enough to win, and when you don’t play well enough to win, you usually don’t,” Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance said. “Untimely penalties, untimely turnovers, that’s the undoing of most people.

“But hats off to Coach Breland and Laurel. Their guys wanted it and came out and did what it took to win.”

What it took for Laurel (2-0) was managing to stay out of its own way for a while.

Both teams struggled with passing accuracy, meaning plenty of clock-stopping, flow-interrupting incompletions.

Worse, the two combined to draw 32 penalties, costing the teams 222 yards in lost yardage.

“We make plays, but we just struggle at times,” Breland said. “We’re going to keep working, and as long as we’re winning while we’re getting better, then we’re in good shape.”

Laurel struck first. After forcing Hattiesburg to punt away its opening possession, senior Amir Smith appeared to have weaved his way to a 55-yard punt return touchdown. But officials gathered and ruled that Smith’s knee had touched at the Hattiesburg 33-yard.

Laurel merely shrugged. After a holding penalty bumped the football to the 46-yard line, the Golden Tornadoes needed just three plays to regain a 7-0 lead, with sophomore Kiron Benjamin slicing 33 yards across the face of an unset defense.

The lead jumped to 14-0 when Evans and junior Kanarius Johnson combined on a 57-yard scoring catch and sprint with 5:03 left in the first quarter.

Hattiesburg appeared to have cut its deficit to 14-6 on the final play of the half, when it seemed a bobbled punt by the Golden Tornadoes had been recovered by the Tigers in the end zone for a score. The six points went up the scoreboard.

But in between quarters, officials reversed the call, ruling it a touchback and awarding Laurel the ball.

Hattiesburg did get within 14-7 in the second quarter when senior linebacker Anthony Bullock scooped up a fumble and ambled 28 yards down the sideline.

The momentum lasted less than 20 seconds. After sophomore Tyrone Jones returned the ensuing kickoff 44 yards to the 47-yard line, Evans popped a read-option keeper 53 yards up the middle to put the Golden Tornadoes ahead 21-7 at halftime.

Evans opened the second half by throwing a tipped interception that set up Hattiesburg at Laurel’s 18-yard line. But the Golden Tornadoes bowed up and forced a turnover on downs after the Tigers had gotten to first-and-goal at the 6-yard line.

Laurel needed just three plays to cover 93 yards. The payoff: a gorgeous, play-action pass that Evans put right on stride in the mitts of Benjamin, who outraced the Tiger secondary to the end zone to complete the 84-yard touchdown.

Bullock, who took over the quarterbacking duties in the second half, hooked up with Ryhen Brisco on a right-on-the-money, over-the-shoulder, 33-yard touchdown pass to get Hattiesburg within 28-13 after three quarters.

But Laurel sucked the air out of the fourth quarter with a 16-play, 75-yard march that Evans’ capped with a 1-yard run. Fourteen plays on the drive were handoffs that helped the Golden Tornadoes take 5:39 off the game clock.

“They had several drives, but that one, yeah, no doubt,” Vance said of the grinder.

Still, the Tigers declined to go away, scoring with a fumble recovery with less than two minutes to play to get within the final margin.

But Laurel would allow Hattiesburg to get no closer as the celebration began at midfield.

The Golden Tornadoes will visit Wayne County High School at 7 p.m. Friday night. The War Eagles (1-1) fell 43-28 at Oak Grove High School Friday.

The Tigers have an open week.

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