RIDGELAND — Friday night was a game Starkville High School football coach Jamie Mitchell is convinced his players would’ve found a way to lose last season.
The 2011 Yellow Jackets are a different breed.
Starkville scored the final 21 points Friday night in a dramatic, come-from-behind 26-23 victory Friday night in a Class 5A, Region 2 game.
“I’ve just got a bunch of kids that refused to quit and they didn’t give up on a night where everything that could’ve wrong did,” Mitchell said.
Starkville’s final three drives ended with a touchdown pass from quarterback Gabe Myles to Stanley Higgins, a 24-yard touchdown scamper by Devin Mitchell, and a 2-yard plunge by Higgins.
The victory is Starkville’s first away from home, and gives the Yellow Jackets control in Region 2 with four games left in the regular season.
“They had 16 points at half and 10 of them were on stuff we gave them,” Mitchell said. “This is one of those moments tonight where you know your team is getting further along.”
Ridgeland relied on a defensive touchdown and red zone containment on that side of the ball to lead for all but the final two minutes. The Titans, who have won two straight region championships before the classifications were redistricted this past summer, had just 67 yards of offense in the first 24 minutes, but a suffocating and opportunistic defense led them to an early lead. However, Starkville’s run defense didn’t allow Ridgeland to drain the clock in the final quarter, allowing minus-15 rushing yards.
“We have too much inexperience and don’t know how to finish off a ballgame,” Ridgeland coach Kenny Burton said. “The story of this game is how we finished. Maybe we’ll get another shot at them in the playoffs down the road.”
Ridgeland took a lead without running an offensive play, as senior linebacker Jymal Ellis read a screen pass and returned an interception 33 yards for a touchdown. The 193-pound linebacker saw Myles stare down a receiver who went in motion and grabbed the ball in the air after he played a tip drill with the football.
Ellis, who leads Ridgeland with five sacks, was consistently in the Starkville backfield all evening, harassing Myles out of the pocket when the Titans weren’t slamming the 6-foot-1 quarterback to the turf.
The one time in the first quarter Myles escaped pressure he found junior tailback Devin Mitchell for what appeared to be a 46-yard touchdown strike after the Yellow Jackets” speedster broke two tackles on his way to the end zone. However, in the midst of Myles’ scrambling, Starkville (5-2, 3-0 Region 2) was flagged for an illegal receiver downfield, which nullified the momentum shift.
Myles’ second mistake came on that same drive as he threw the ball into the end zone and found Titans senior defensive back Kris Givens, who returned the interception 74 yards deep into Starkville territory. Givens also had a fumble return.
After earning its second turnover of the night, Ridgeland’s first offensive possession stalled but ended with a 33-yard field goal by junior Tre Taliaferro.
Myles had 299 total yards, splitting his damage between the ground game in the first half and through the air in the final two quarters. He also overcame his three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble).
At the end of the first quarter, Ridgeland (4-3, 2-1) had minus-3 yards of offense but a 9-0 advantage thanks to its ball-hawking defense.
“Our defense was unreal tonight,” Mitchell said. “Other than two big plays where it seemed like we missed a combined 14 tackles, they couldn’t move it on us. We hope to keep relying on that side of the ball to win games for us.”
Starkville finally finished a long drive with the first field goal of the season for Daniel Fumo. The senior kicker’s 41-yard field goal was followed two plays later by a defensive safety.
After pinning Ridgeland deep on the kickoff, Titans quarterback Tyler James was sacked in the end zone by lineman Eric Rogers to close the gap to 9-5 with nine minutes left in the first half.
The first big offensive play for Ridgeland turned the momentum again when junior Derrian Harrington took a screen pass from James and went untouched for a 62-yard touchdown. The longest play of the half was Harrington’s first reception of the 2011 season.
By the time both teams headed to the locker room for halftime, Ridgeland had more points (16) than offensive plays run (11).
Ridgeland added an 89-yard flair pass out of the backfield that turned into a touchdown strike from James to junior tailback Bryce Williams. Starkville’s defensive backs didn’t lay a hand on Williams once he got past the line of scrimmage to give the Titans a 23-5 advantage.
Starkville will try to for its fourth straight region victory of the season next week when it plays host to Canton.