HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - The simplest of things often can make all the difference in the world.
Such was the case Friday night at D.I. Patrick Stadium
Trailing East Central High School by four points and facing fourth-and-1 at his own 44-yard line, Hattiesburg High School quarterback Jordan Willis took the snap, turned to his right and zipped a pass to Jermel Ford., who was in single coverage at the line of scrimmage.
Ford caught the pass, got a step inside of his defender and was off to the races.
Fifty-six yards later, Ford crossed the goal line with the touchdown that gave the Tigers a hard-fought, 20-18 victory over the Hornets in the Region 4-5A regular-season finale.
“I knew I was gone,” said Ford, who also caught a 12-yard slant for a score in the first quarter. “Once the quarterback made the throw, the offensive line blocked, and I knew it was a touchdown.”
Hattiesburg (7-3) returns to the postseason after a year’s absence riding a four-game win streak. The Tigers will travel to Ellisville to take on South Jones High School (6-4) at 7 p.m. Friday.
“Me and Coach (Todd) Breland hook up again,” HHS coach Tony Vance said of his friend and long-time Laurel High School coach who is in hist season with the Braves.
“There’re a lot of good teams in (Class) 5A, but we just wanted a shot, and we got that (Friday night).”
East Central (8-2), which like Hattiesburg already had a playoff berth locked up, will visit Laurel (7-3) at 7 p.m. Friday.
Hattiesburg gave up turf to an East Central’s double-wing offense, but the Hornets' first drive set the tone.
After moving to a third-and-goal at the Hattiesburg 5-yard line, East Central was called for holding. On thrid-and-11 from the 15, a pass fell incomplete, and the Hornets settled for a 32-yard field goal by Tyler Farris and a 3-0 lead.
Vance rolled the dice on HHS' first possession, calling for a fake punt that turned into a 47-yard pass to Joshua Jones to the East Central 1.
A holding call negated a touchdown run, but Willis found Ford with the 12-yard scoring pass for a 7-3 Hattiesburg lead.
“He’s been a big-play guy for us all year,” Vance said.
East Central regained the lead, 11-7, on a 5-yard run by Sam Walls and 2-point conversion run by Colby Reynolds.
Hattiesburg drove 63 yards behind the running of Ellis Brown, who capped a 10-ply drive with a 9-yad touchdown run. Brown had seven carries for 41 yards on the 10-play drive and Hattiesburg took a 14-11 lead into halftime.
After a scoreless third quarter that saw an East Central drive that reached the 2-yard line ruined by penalty before fizzling out, the Hornets turned a break into another lead.
Willis lost the handle near midfield and East Central recovered the fumble at Hattiesburg’s 41-yard line.
After driving to a fourth-and-1 at the Hattiesburg 12, Reynolds not only got the first down, but another 11 yards that gave the Hornets an 18-14 lead with 4:33 to play.
Hattiesburg took over at its 35-yard line and drove to a third-and-1 at the 44-yard line. Willis was stopped for no gain on third down, setting up a last-chance play that turned into the game-winning touchdown with 2:20 to play.
East Central drove for one first down, but on a third-down play near midfield, Hornets quarterback Brady Fant was sacked from behind and fumbled with Hattiesburg’s Tomacio Robinson recovering with 56 seconds to play.
“These guys, I just have a lot of confidence in them and know that we can go and out and win,” Willis said.