October 7, 2017 3:52:26 PM
MACON -- Kyziah Pruitt didn't mind the extra duty Friday night.
On offense, the junior wide receiver is one of the Noxubee County High School team's biggest weapons. His combination of speed and athleticism makes him a difficult player to handle one-on-one.
Earlier this season, Noxubee County High football coach Tyrone Shorter said he wanted to limit the number of snaps Pruitt and other key members of his team played on defense.
In rivalry games, though, those plans tend to get scrapped pretty quickly.
That's why Pruitt was a fixture in the secondary for most of the evening against Louisville in a Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 4A, Region 4 game.
It turns out Pruitt can be as big of a "dog" on defense as he can on offense.
Buoyed by an interception return for a touchdown by Pruitt, the Noxubee County defense's ability to make one final stand was the difference in a 35-30 victory in the rivalry affectionately known as "The Toothpick Bowl."
"I have all of the trust in the world in those guys on defense," said Pruitt, who also had a 4-yard touchdown run to help Noxubee County (3-4, 1-0 region) build a 28-3 lead. "They come out at practice every day and every week they are going hard."
Pruitt said the Tigers usually get a lot of pressure on the quarterback during the week in practice, even if they aren't allowed to hit Armoni Clark or Maliek Stallings. Noxubee County saved those hits and some of that pressure for Friday night, as it routinely forced Louisville's quarterbacks to scramble when plays broke down. The defense's ability to do that led Pruitt to call his teammates on that side of the football "dogs."
"We let them loose," Pruitt said.
Still, all of the Tigers said after the game they have a long way to go to get even more disciplined, to communicate more, to clean up mistakes, and to come together even tighter on offense.
Shorter sensed the defense could play a role in the outcome based on that unit's performance leading up to the game.
"One of the guys said earlier this week that we have to have each others' backs," Shorter said. "The defense played really, really well tonight. I thought they stepped up to the plate when they needed to."
Noxubee County's defense had to make a stand after Louisville's Jakevious Whitfield stripped quarterback Armoni Clark of the football and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown. Elijah Wilkes' kick cut the Tigers' lead to 35-30 with 3 minutes, 8 seconds remaining.
Noxubee County then put itself in further jeopardy by fair-catching the kickoff, which forced it to start at its 12-yard line. A sack on third down pushed the Tigers back to their 5 and forced them to punt the ball back to the Wildcats with less than two minutes to play.
That's when the "dogs" came out.
Starting at the Noxubee County 41, Louisville (6-2, 1-1 region) gained only 4 yards on four plays. On second-and-8, Chaokang Brooks sacked quarterback Dre Shumaker for a 7-yard loss. The Tigers' front flushed Shumaker from the pocket on third down and limited him to a 2-yard gain. An incomplete pass on fourth down sealed the victory.
"The bye week helped us because we broke their offense down so our defense could be stronger, faster, and quicker," Brooks said. "Every week we improve. We are a young team, so we have to learn from our mistakes and get back in there."
Previous Noxubee County High defenses have relied on a swarming mentality to overwhelm opponents. This season, the Tigers are working toward that mind-set with a young team. Earlier in the week, Shorter said the coaching staff simplified some of the defensive play calls in an attempt to get the players to play faster and to fly to the football. Coming off a bye week, the Tigers did more of that and held the Wildcats to 110 yards rushing on 39 carries.
In addition to the final stop, Noxubee County's defense also forced Louisville to settle for a field goal after an 11-play drive on its opening series. The Tigers also stood tall after a fumble in the third quarter gave the Wildcats the football at the Tigers' 31.
"We had the offense's back tonight," Noxubee County senior defensive lineman Myles Smith said. "The defense improved a whole lot."
Pruitt added another notch to the defense's belt in the fourth quarter. On second-and-12 from the Louisville 12, Noxubee County flushed Shumaker out of the pocket and forced him to roll to his left. The sophomore athlete tried to lead a receiver going to the left, toward the Noxubee County sideline. But Pruitt, who was playing center field, read the play, broke, cradled the football in his belly, and sprinted to the end zone.
"I saw (the defense getting back to the old style of past Noxubee County defenses) in practice in our bye week," Shorter said. "They are flying around with relentless effort, so I kind of felt like they were going to come in and play really hard tonight. We flew around tonight. I am proud of the way our defensive front played tonight."
The win extended Noxubee County's Region 4 winning streak to 27 games. The Tigers have won the last five region titles. Noxubee County's last loss in a region game was a 14-12 decision to Louisville on Oct. 20, 2011.
The rivalry earned its nickname from former Noxubee County and current Louisville coach M.C. Miller, who has a penchant for having a toothpick in his mouth. The latest installment featured a combined 35 points scored off turnovers (21 by Noxubee County) and 27 penalties (13 for the Tigers).
The victory also helped Shorter celebrate his 45th birthday in style. Standing on the field with a bag of goodies and a bouquet of balloons given to him by his nieces, nephews, and sister after the game, Shorter reiterated the importance for the Tigers to become more disciplined. Even though his team didn't limit its penalties to eight or 10 like he hoped for earlier in the week, Shorter said the Tigers are making progress.
"It is one of those birthdays I will always remember," Shorter said. "The guys fought and wanted it bad for me. They did a great job. I am proud we overcame a lot of adversity today. We gave them short fields off turnovers, but we kept fighting."
If the defense continues to come up with big plays like it did Friday night, Shorter likely will be able to live with a few mistakes, especially if Pruitt is able to shoulder the load of playing both ways.
"We are really shooting ourselves in the foot," Pruitt said. "We got the win, but we are certainly not happy with it. We got a lot of cleaning up to do. We are getting better and better every week, but there is still a whole lot of room to improve.
"We have to get way more disciplined in all three phases of the game."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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