September 10, 2017 1:12:26 AM
STARKVILLE -- Starkville High School senior Cameron Gardner was in uniform for his team's game against Columbus on Friday night.
Gardner had two touchdowns catches in his team's 44-7 victory at Yellow Jacket Stadium.
But Gardner feels Starkville won the game much earlier than when the final horn sounded.
"We won this game Sunday," Gardner said. "In the film session, everybody was quiet. Everybody was focused. It was a totally different demeanor than I had seen before. You could tell things were changing. Sunday is when it all happened. We knew we had to step up and become the football team we are capable of becoming."
Starkville looked like a Class 6A State title contender against Columbus. The Yellow Jackets built a 30-0 halftime lead, collected 363 yards of offense, and didn't commit a turnover.
Quarterback Malik Brown made throwing the ball look simple. Gardner made catching the ball look easy. Natrone Brooks made being a dominating force on defense look routine. Brown and Gardner had help on offense, while Brooks had assistance on defense.
Starkville had a different resolve than it did last week in a 28-3 loss at West Point.
"We weren't prepared to play last week," Starkville coach Chris Jones said. "That was a humbling experience. Nothing will get your mind right more quickly than looking up and seeing a score like that."
Typically, coaches go harder in practice after a blowout. There was no need to change any of the practice tendencies. However, something else changed.
"Practice became serious again," Brooks said. "There was no laughing, no cutting up. Everybody came to work. You say shrug it off because it is one loss. It's more than that. It's an attitude. It's a mind-set. We didn't want to go down the same road we went down last year.
"The coaches didn't have to do anything. You saw how we practiced. You win football games on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday."
While Starkville was putting in a plan to win Sunday through Wednesday, the fruits of that labor manifested themselves early in the game Friday, as it scored on three of its first five possessions.
Starkville drove 41 yards on two plays and 62 yards on eight plays. Brown ended both drives with scores. An interception by Alexis Stallings set up a three-play, 53-yard drive. This time, Brown hit Gardner over the top for a 40-yard touchdown pass. The scores gave Starkville a 20-0 lead after one quarter.
"The quick start was everything," Gardner said. "The best way to forget about a bad game is to have a quick start. We took it to them early, and that was important. I think that got everybody settled down. Everybody was ready to play after that. When you have a game where you don't (score a touchdown), that first (touchdown) is huge."
A 31-yard touchdown from Brown to Rufus Harvey and a 29-yard field goal by Garin Boniol helped the hosts make it 30-0 at halftime.
By that time, Starkville was firmly in control and the defense was feeling good.
Brooks had a team-high nine tackles, including two for loss. He also had an interception. Jacob Williams forced a fumble and Stallings recovered the ball for his second takeaway, and the team's third.
Starkville had seven tackles for loss, three pass breakups, and three quarterback hurries.
"We wanted to play fast and we wanted to play aggressively," Brooks said. "That is how you get turnovers. You bait the other team into mistakes. The main thing was staying true to your assignments. We knew if each player did their part we could get some turnovers.
"You just can't get down. The coaches challenged us to come out this week with a new mind-set. Our goal was to be 1-0 this week, and we did just that. We approached this game like it was a new season. You have to learn from the West Point loss and move on."
Brown was 13-for-18 for 170 yards and three touchdowns. Gardner had three receptions for 81 yards. Andreus Swanigan had 90 of Starkville's 193 rushing yards.
Starkville played for a second-straight week without leading rusher Rodrigues Clark, who was hurt in a victory against Oxford.
"The passing game had to take the lead with our depth hurt at running back," Gardner said. "We like to throw the ball, and it showed tonight. We can be one of the best offenses in the state when we put our mind to it. We just have to keep working. The West Point loss humbled us, but we can't let it define us.
"We know what this unit is capable of doing."
Jones said his team's mind-set was a concern at practice. He wanted the Yellow Jackets to focus on fundamentals. Everything from alignment to execution came under the microscope.
"Any win is a good win," Jones said. "Before we left the locker room, we talked about playing with passion. We also talked about continuing to fight when things don't go your way."
As seniors, Gardner and Brooks understand the urgency needed to make a run at the Class 6A State championship.
"We are a good football team," Gardner said. "The guys know now we have to be a good football team seven days a week. You can't show up on a Friday night and expect to win because of the talent you have. A lot goes into it. If you aren't winning in the film room and at practice, you aren't winning on Friday nights."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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