Midway through the first quarter, Starkville took its opening possession and moved 63 yards for a touchdown. On its second possession, Northwest Rankin had momentum and two first downs. The Cougars had the ball to midfield before an offensive pass interference call. That play wiped out a big gain and also led to a punt. Starkville’s second score followed and the rout was on.
“We like start fast,” Starkville coach Jamie Mitchell said. “I am really proud of the focus this team has each week to start a game. It can be difficult when you go on the road, so it is important to throw the first punch and grab the momentum.”
The Yellow Jackets forced back-to-back punts on the Cougars’ first two possessions. Starkville took its second possession 74 yards on three plays. In a drive that lasted 55 seconds, Jacquez Horsley ran for 41 yards, Brady Davis hit Raphael Leonard for 6 yards, and Davis hit A.J. Brown for a 27 yards and the touchdown.
“The offense keeps getting better and better,” Brown said. “We had a few plays we didn’t make. However, we don’t get discouraged because we will always have a chance to make another play.”
Senior running back Jacquez Horsley returned to the lineup after missing the game against Columbus last week with a hamstring pull. Against Northwest Rankin, Horsley had nine carries for 106 yards and a touchdown. As a unit, the Yellow Jackets ran for 135 yards. While Starkville’s passing game draws most accolades, running backs Horsley, senior Matt Fuller, and junior Avery Brown have proven to be a force to be reckoned with.
“It felt really good to be back out there helping my team,” Horsley said. “Last week was really hard, but Avery did a great job. He stepped up. It is good to know if something happens and you can’t go, your teammates have your back.”
Midway through the second quarter, Northwest Rankin put together a couple of nice drives but failed to score. Starkville then was forced to punt for the first time leading 12-0. Lorenzo Dantzler and Derion Ford led a huge defensive stop for Starkville. In his first start, Terrance Grayer had an interception and the Yellow Jackets suddenly had a short field. Starkville then scored twice in the final 4 minutes, 18 seconds of the first half to put it away.
“As a defense, we take everything personally,” Grayer said. “We don’t want to give up first downs or big plays. We want the other team to earn everything they get.”
Starkville’s defense posted its second-straight shutout. Ford, Dantzler, Jordyn Bowlin, A.J. Smith, and Dantzler led a dominating performance. After holding Columbus to four first downs and 125 yards last week, Northwest Rankin managed nine first downs and 151 yards.
“The people who are sleeping on our defense will be surprised,” Mitchell said. “It is all about hard work. They come to practice every day wanting to get better. They also don’t take plays off during a game. Shutouts are real special to them.”
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.