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Starkville's defense up to challenge vs. NW Rankin


Matthew Stevens



STARKVILLE -- Starkville High School defensive coordinator Brooks Oakley admitted before his team's game against Northwest Rankin that he had no idea what kind of offense he and the Yellow Jackets would see. 


It didn't matter.  


Northwest Rankin tried several formations and sets and still failed to generate an attack, as Starkville posted its second shutout of the season in a 35-0 victory at Homecoming at Yellow Jackets Field. 


The victory was Starkville's 16th in a row in region play. 


Northwest Rankin, under third-year coach Pete Hurt, ran the shotgun spread and the veer offense out of an I-formation, but neither produced results. As many as seven Cougars ran the ball in the first half, but only senior Curtis Hicks (16 carries, 92 yards) found room consistently, and that was mostly late in the game with Starkville leading 28-0. 


Senior quarterback Princeton Jones accounted for all four offensive touchdowns for Starkville (4-2, 2-0 Class 6A, Region 2). The converted wide receiver was 12 of 23 for 230 yards and three touchdown passes. He led an offense that had -2 yards rushing in the first half. 


Northwest Rankin continued to play man-to-man defense in the secondary against bigger and more athletic wide receivers, which left Jones with wide-open targets all night. 


"We really were surprised they blitzed a lot and left our receivers without help because I'll put our receivers up against anybody's," Starkville coach Jamie Mitchell said. "They may be the best group I've coached at any level." 


Jones had a 10-yard strike to Raphael Leonard after a opening possession turnover by Northwest Rankin (1-5, 0-2) on a beautifully thrown ball to the deep corner of the end zone. Jones then found A.J. Brown and Darius Grayer on 58- and 60-yard bombs on perfectly timed crossing routes down the middle of the field. 


"We opened up the playbook more the last couple of weeks," Jones said. "I just feel like I have the best wide receivers in the entire state at going up and making plays." 


Starkville's defense, which has come alive the past three weeks, held Northwest Rankin to 2 of 12 on third-down conversions. Most of the Cougars' 225 yards came late in the fourth quarter. 


"One thing we had to get back to was making people remember we are Starkville, and that means we are not going to let you run the ball on us," Starkville senior linebacker Taylor Johnston said. "We were confused by what they were going to run tonight, no question, so all that made us do is concentrate on our fundamentals more. We did our job no matter what they presented us." 


The Yellow Jackets caused four turnovers, including a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown by sophomore defensive back Jontavious Gardner for the final score. 


"Any time you put up a doughnut on defense, you did a lot of things right," Mitchell said. "This is the difference between 5A and 6A ball tonight because no matter what the scoreboard says this victory wasn't easy." 


Starkville will play Friday at Greenville-Weston High School, which is led by linebacker Gerri Green, a Mississippi State verbal commitment. 


Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.



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