MACON — Rontavis Clark walked back to the sideline early in the second quarter Friday night with a lot on his mind.
The Starkville High School senior wide receiver had just muffed a punt giving Noxubee County High School really good field position. The Tigers ended up scoring two plays later to take the lead over the Yellow Jackets.
Clark bounced back in the second half though and kept his team in the ballgame, even though the Jackets lost 26-20 in double overtime on the road in the season opener.
“You just have to keep having short term memory,” Clark said. “I made a bad play and I hurt my team. I knew I had to make up for it. When I came out here in the second half, I knew I had to make some plays.”
And make up for it he did. Clark hauled in a 27-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Montario Montgomery late in the third quarter to pull the Jackets within six points. He made two big plays on the game-tying drive early in the fourth quarter. Clark caught a 22-yard pass after three-straight false starts to give the Jackets some hope and then he hauled in a 24-yard pass on 4th-and-15 to put SHS near the red zone.
If he was still thinking about the punt, it didn’t show on those three plays.
“I think he’s a good player,” first-year coach Ricky Woods said. “He’s got to bounce back. You’ve got to move forward.”
Clark finished the game with three catches for 73 yards and the lone touchdown.
Clark’s teammates were encouraging him on the sideline after the muffed punt and they rallied around him. Especially Montgomery, who leaned more and more on Clark in the second half as the Jackets tried to mount their comeback.
“He’s just that type of guy,” Montgomery said. “He had setbacks, but he came in clutch for us. We were all in his ear just telling him, ‘Keep it going. Just keep it moving. That’s all we have to do. Keep your head up.’ He made plays for us.
“I lost no trust in him. All my trust was in him. When he muffed the punt, I still had my trust in him. He’s that type of guy.”
The two catches on the game-tying drive gave the Jackets a chance. Senior wide receiver A.J. Brown caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Montgomery to tie the game at 20-20. The extra point was blocked.
Montgomery leaned on Brown a lot in the passing game, but on the game-tying drive, he couldn’t stop finding Clark over the middle.
“I saw him open and he just made a great catch for us,” Montgomery said. “I didn’t know what to do, I just threw the ball. He’s just that type of guy, he makes plays.”
Clark transferred to Starkville this season after playing at West Lowndes. West Lowndes is a Class 1A school, while Starkville is 6A. Even with the muffed punt and the weight of expectations on his shoulders in a big-time program, Clark didn’t succumb to the pressure or the bad play.
“You never know how that’s going to transition to 6A football,” defensive coordinator Brooks Oakley said. “He had the muff punt obviously, but he made some huge plays. He kept us in the game. He’s just going to keep getting better the more he plays in this league.”
The Jackets scored on their opening drive, but were stymied by the Tiger defense for the rest of the first half. The Jackets couldn’t get anything going on two previous drives in the second half, until Montgomery found Clark for the touchdown.
“I just threw it and I got hit, so I didn’t really know what happened. I just heard the crowd yell,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery hit Clark in stride and he had an easy path to the end zone. Clark had a good feeling that when he stepped to the line he was going to score a touchdown and redeem himself for the earlier mistake.
“When I came off the line I knew I was going to score,” Clark said. “Then he hit me and I knew I was going to score.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.