STARKVILLE — Leading by 18 points in the third quarter, no one at J.E. Logan Field could have envisioned the ending of the Starkville Academy football team”s 31-29 Homecoming win against Winston Academy.
The Volunteers (1-5), who snapped a 20-game losing streak dating back to 2008, had just put together a 10-play scoring drive with a little less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter to take a 31-13 lead.
The Volunteers” running game, which produced 352 yards, was a force inside and out. Up to that point, they also hadn”t turned the ball over.
Winston Academy”s vaunted spread offense had fizzled out on fourth down on its last two drives.
But the Volunteers, who lost by a combined three points to Ackerman and Lamar School, had been down this road.
“Lamar was the same way when we went into halftime leading by two touchdowns,” quarterback Kyle Henson said. “We came in the locker room and said we need to step on their throats. We can”t give up. It already happened to us once this year.
“Funny, coach (Jeff) Terrill always tells us the last inch is the hardest.”
Starkville Academy had every reason to fold in the fourth quarter, especially after Winston Academy overcame first-and-30 from its 35 to pull within two. The Patriots (3-3) needed just three plays to score after committing three penalties on the drive.
Starkville Academy, which hadn”t punted all night, had back-to-back three-and-outs and moved the ball just 8 yards in between both Winston Academy scores in the fourth.
The Volunteers, who threw just one pass, kept the ball on the ground hoping to use up more clock.
The story was unfolding like Starkville Academy”s other close losses this season.
“We probably got a little bit too conservative,” Terrill said. “We were trying to keep the ball in Kyle”s hands. I think (Winston) knew we weren”t going to put it up at that time, and that really helped them.”
While Starkville Academy struggled to recapture its form from the first three quarters, its defense couldn”t stop quarterback Tyler Sullivan and receiver Cameron Paschal. Sullivan had 197 passing yards and a game-high 144 rushing yards and two scores. Winston Academy”s big-play offense reeled off 421 yards and seized momentum in the fourth quarter.
But the Patriots, who had to chase the lead because of their drops (five) and penalties (10), fell victim to their misfortunate on their penultimate drive.
Ryan Mann intercepted a Sullivan pass after Adam Crittenden laid into the Winston Academy quarterback and gave Starkville Academy possession at its 32.
With two minutes remaining, all Starkville Academy had to do was pick up one first down and run out the clock.
On the second play of the drive, a bad handoff between Henson and Crittenden turned into a fumble and gave the Patriots another life and forced the Volunteers to earn the last inch.
Winston Academy had every chance to win the game, with three downs inside the Starkville Academy 3. The Patriots even passed up the chance to kick a field goal with one of the three tries.
Instead, the Volunteers, down to the last inch, stopped Sullivan at the 1-yard line as the clock expired.
The win wasn”t how the Volunteers thought the game would end following their blistering start.
“It was a close game and there were times where we might have questioned how it was going to turn out,” Crittenden said. “But we were giving it our all, and I could tell we were going to leave it out on the field.”
Crittenden”s move to fullback, a little over a week in the making, provided the Volunteers with a battering ram to complement Ryan McKell and Henson.
Terrill said Crittenden”s position switch was due to injuries, and the senior didn”t disappoint with a season-high 14 carries for 67 yards.
“It was just kind of spur of the moment thing right before last week”s game,” Crittenden said. “I had a day of practice at it right before last week”s game. They just kind of put it on me, gave me reps in practice, and made sure I knew the plays. We just ran the plays we ran this whole season.”
Starkville Academy set season-highs in points scored and rushing yards, and did so with near flawless execution in the running game.
Four players scored touchdowns, and Henson only threw the ball once.
Terrill said there wasn”t much need to throw the ball. He left the field praising his team”s execution and rhythm in the multi-option offense.
“We executed well, and, of course, we want to throw some play-action,” Terrill said. “But I think some of the reason why the run was working was because the secondary was not getting very involved. And, of course, the plan coming in, we knew how high-powered they were. I would tell the coach every time we call the play, we”re in 25-second mode every time. We wanted to hold possession.”