STARKVILLE — Chris Jones left the sideline at halftime Friday with a 14-7 lead and a vision of what had to happen next.
Starkville High School’s football coach didn’t know the exact numbers, but he knew South Panola was testing his team in a specific way. The Tigers attempted four passes and held the Yellow Jackets to 2.3 yards per carry.
South Panola was trying to beat Starkville with toughness. The Yellow Jackets had to respond, and they did.
Starkville rushed for 108 yards and limited South Panola to 36 in the final two quarters en route to a 37-7 victory in the first round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A playoffs.
“The message was finish strong, don’t forget about what happened last year,” Jones said. “We didn’t finish. We didn’t finish that last game.”
Jones was referring to Starkville’s 21-17 loss to Pearl in the Class 6A state championship game. In delivering that message, Jones was reminded of the old-school coaches he worked for who told him if you will do well if you outhit, outblock, and outrun your opponents.
Starkville’s defense did all of the hitting when it became clear playing physical football was the only way out.
“In the second quarter, they kept running the ball on us hard,” defensive tackle Jaylan Ware said.
Ware’s teammates on the defensive front saw a challenge and they met it. Outside linebacker Zach Edwards had 10 tackles, including four for loss. Defensive end Jalil Clemons had eight tackles (two for loss). Ware had six tackles. Defensive end Ryan Johnson had five.
The front’s tireless work produced a safety on an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone late in the third quarter. Jones was pleased to see the unit take advantage of the opportunities.
Twice in the second half, Garin Boniol punts pinned South Panola deep and the Yellow Jackets gave them no hope of digging out. Boniol’s 48-yard punt that set up South Panola on its 2-yard line late in the third quarter led to the safety. Later, his 28-yard punt put South Panola on the 8. That field position led to a fourth-quarter touchdown.
“The older and the more experienced I get, the more I realize offense and defense isn’t as important as special teams. You got to flip the field, play field position,” Jones said.
Starkville’s offense capitalized on the field position. The Yellow Jackets did it with an old-fashioned ground assault.
“The game plan was to not run the ball, to be honest with you,” Jones said. “We expected them to be hell bent on stopping the run and we wanted to throw the ball, whether we had success or not just to back them up and put in their mind we will throw it.”
Starkville stuck to that plan, as five of its first 12 plays were passes. Nine of Starkville’s last 10 plays were runs.
When Starkville needed to be tough, it was just that, and it decided to exploit it.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson