STARKVILLE — When the Class 5A North State title game is in the balance, it is a safe bet the Starkville High School defense will be on the scene.
Starkville (11-2) will ride a nine-game win streak into its game against Region 2 rival Ridgeland (10-3) at 7 p.m. Friday (WMSV 91.1 FM). It also will try to duplicate a feat it accomplished Oct. 7 when it defeated Ridgeland 26-23 in the regular season. That victory helped Starkville clinch first place in the region.
A large measure of Starkville’s success can be traced to a hard-nosed defense, which is allowing 16.5 points per game. The defense was instrumental Friday in a 20-14 second-round win against two-time defending Class 5A state champion West Point.
“West Point thought they could come in here and run it down our throats,” Starkville senior defensive end/back Dennis Ware said. “It was the playoffs, so we had to really step up our game. This team is hungry. They want to get to Jackson.”
For many teams, West Point is the measuring stick in Class 5A. West Point showed Sept. 9 it was a contender for a third title in a row thanks to a 33-12 victory against Starkville in West Point.
“Friday night was such a big win for our program,” Starkville coach Jamie Mitchell said. “We wanted a good crowd and it was even better than we had imagined. The kids love playing in front of a big crowd because they play with a lot of emotion.
“We allowed two touchdowns, and one of those came on a fourth-down play. A win like that gives your team the confidence it needs to play for a state championship.”
When the season began, the Yellow Jackets relied on new faces on offense. To compete for the Region 2 championship, the players knew the defense would have to set the tone until the offense caught up.
“We had some injuries early on on defense,” Starkville junior defensive back Johnny Smith said. “Other players had to step up. Here late in the year, our offense is playing well and our defense has been playing lights out. We are still trying to move on because we are hungry.”
Mitchell admits concerns about his team didn’t focus on defense in the midst of a 2-2 start. The Yellow Jackets have fined-tuned their defensive approach in recent weeks and have become more physical.
“It has been unbelievable to watch us play defense,” Mitchell said. “We are as physical a team as anybody. We told the defense earlier this week they had been the ones carrying us all year and they would have to be the ones to carry us to Jackson.”
If there is anything that motivates Starkville’s defense, it is a good challenge.
“Every first down we allow we view it as being disrespectful,” Ware said. “We know it’s football, so the good teams are going to get some things. However, if we give up a first down, we are going to be our best to not give up another.
“We try to knock the other team out. Our approach as a unit is we are going to fight you for every single yard in the game.”
Starkville will face a daunting challenge Friday night. Last week, the Yellow Jackets tried to beat the Green Wave after losing to them in the regular season. This week, Starkville will have to win on the road in a place where it already has earned a victory.
“We felt like we left some plays on the field the first time we played down there,” Mitchell said. “The key to Friday night will be making those plays. Both teams will play extremely hard because there is a ticket for Jackson riding for the winner.
“One constant for our season has been the defensive unit. As long as those players play as they have the first 13 games, then we will be the team going to Jackson and playing for a championship.”
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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