HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - The question could be heard sporadically from the home stands at D.I. Patrick Stadium before being picked up in a rolling chant by the entire Hattiesburg High School football team.
“Where’s the Jug? Where’s the Jug? Where’s the Jug?’
And after several pregnant minutes following the final horn of the Tigers’ 26-12 victory over Laurel High School, the Lil’ Brown Jug was produced from the Golden Tornadoes sideline, and a celebration broke out on the stadium’s new turf that completely ignored any sort of social distancing in the Year of COVID-19.
Back-up HHS quarterback Jermaine Powell, who was pressed into duty when the injured starter Jordan Willis was unavailable, threw for a pair of first-half touchdowns and the Tigers scored twice more 19 seconds apart late in the fourth quarter to reclaim the Jug after a year’s absence.
“Last year was the first time we didn’t bring it back,” said HHS coach Tony Vance, who improved to 6-2 in the longest, continuously-played high school football rivalry in Mississippi. “But, five out of the last six? We’ll take it.”
Under the cloud of the coronavirus, the 99th edition of The Battle for the Lil’ Brown Jug appeared in jeopardy when the Mississippi High School Activities Association pushed back the start of the 2020 football season from the end of August to the first weekend in September.
That lopped the first two weeks of the season off MHSAA members schedules.
But with a little re-arranging, Vance and first-year Laurel coach Ryan Earnest made sure the streak would continue, and the game became the season opener for both teams Friday.
In many ways, it was a typical first game, with frequent penalties and mental mistakes and dominated by defense.
The opening possession of the game ended on a Hattiesburg interception. Laurel wound up committing six of the game’s eight turnovers, losing two fumbles in the first half and throwing four interceptions in the second.
Hattiesburg safety Walton Thompson came up with three of those interceptions, and sophomore Makel Jones returned the the fourth 19 yards for the game-clinching touchdown with 3 minutes, 16 seconds, to play.
“He was banged up last week, and didn’t get to play (in a scrimmage),” Vance said of Thompson. “But he’s a senior who’s gotten better each week.
“Last year was his first year back to football and he’s continued to improve each week. We were proud of his effort (Friday).”
Earnest said he was proud of his team’s effort as well, especially since the Golden Tornadoes were without two of their best players for most of the night.
Senior running back/quarterback Xavier Evans did not dress, sidelined by injury. Senior receiver Kanarius Johnson saw his evening end three plays into Laurel’s first possession after a tussle with a Tiger that ended up on the Laurel sideline.
“I’m not making excuses, but I don’t know of a team in Mississippi that can lose its best two football players against a team of this caliber and still have a chance to win,” said Earnest, a Laurel High alumnus.
Laurel indeed made things interesting.
After a scoreless first quarter, Hattiesburg took a 14-0 lead into halftime on a 22-yard pass to Joshua Jones on a 4th-and-12 play and a 40-yard bubble screen to Jack Jackson.
But the Golden Tornadoes seized the momentum late in the third quarter and held it through much of the fourth.
The Golden Tornadoes pulled within 14-6 early in the fourth quarter on a 32-yard pass on 3rd-and-16 from Dexter Scott to Kenau White.
Laurel then blocked a punt on Hattiesburg’s next possession, and running back Kiron Benjamin finished off a two-play drive with a 6-yard touchdown run to get the Golden Tornadoes within 14-12 with 7:30 left in the game.
“We knew they were going to make some plays,” Vance said. “That’s just the type caliber team that Coach Ryan Earnest always has. We knew they were not going to quit, so we just kept pushing our guys.”
Hattiesburg answered. Facing 2nd-and 11 from its own 19, Chanse Duckworth ripped off an 18-yard run to give the Tigers breathing room, and running back Jaquez Andrews finished off the 10-play, 80-yard drive by slicing over the left side for a 38-yard touchdown with 3:16 to play.
“That’s just what we expect Quez to do,” Vance said. “Anytime he takes it, we expect him to pop it for a score.”
One snap later, Jones picked off his first pass of the season and set sail down the home sideline to all but the game out of reach.
“Our defense did a great job for 3 ½ quarters, well, really, four quarters,” Earnest said. “They kept us in the game for as long they could, but it was just a little too much to ask for.
“We just couldn’t sustain any drives, on the turnovers, the penalties. We just were not a very efficient football team (Friday) … But we’ve got something to build on. This team has a lot of character.”