Heritage Academy football coach Sean Harrison tracked the broken tackles out loud over his headset, increasing his count by one each time Starkville Academy running back CJ Jackson foiled another defender’s attempt to bring him down.
By the time Jackson was finally knocked off his feet at the Patriots 3-yard line, Harrison was up to six missed tackles: It had taken the Pats seven attempts to wrestle down the Volunteers’ talented back on the very first play from scrimmage, a 66-yard gain.
“He is who we thought he was: a heck of a ballplayer,” Harrison said of Jackson.
Three plays later, Colby Allen scored from 2 yards out for the Vols, and for Heritage Academy, the essence of Friday’s rivalry game at C.L. Mitchell Field in Columbus was clear: Stop Jackson, or lose.
The Patriots chose the first option.
Defensive coordinator Russ Whiteside dialed up a halftime adjustment to curtail the Vols’ potent stretch run scheme, Mack Howard found Harris Gunter for the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter, and the Patriots (6-2) pitched a second-half shutout to claim Friday’s rivalry game with a 27-18 win over the Vols (5-3).
“Our defense is outstanding,” said Gunter, a junior wideout and defensive back. “We’ve got the best coaches in the state: coach Harrison and coach Whiteside. They come up with great game plans. We came up with some adjustments at halftime, and we just shut them down.”
Harrison wouldn’t say precisely what the Pats’ modification was, but it sure worked. They limited Jackson to smaller gains, forced incompletions when Starkville Academy quarterback Randall Futral dropped back to pass and kept the Vols off the scoreboard entirely.
Meanwhile, Heritage Academy made offensive strides of its own after going into the break with an 18-14 lead. After running back Braden Davidson took the Pats to midfield and wide receiver Mitchell Woodard came down with an acrobatic catch at the Starkville Academy 9-yard line, Harrison drew up a fade route to sophomore wideout Trey Naugher. Instead, the Pats may have gotten away with a false start by their running back, Gunter said. Howard snapped the ball late and, Gunter worked himself free,
“I just found open grass, and Mack found me for a touchdown,” he said.
The score put the Pats up 21-14, and it was the only one they needed to hold on for the win. But it wasn’t the only one they got.
On third-and-long with 25 seconds to play, Futral scrambled to his left. He was nowhere near first-down yardage when the ball came out. Harrison thought it was an incomplete pass.
“Alright, one more down, and it’s over,” the coach told his team.
Harrison started making preparations for a kneel-down that would end the game, but the play was still in motion: The whistle hadn’t sounded, and the ball was live. Senior Jonathan Peal pounced on the fumble and returned it for a Heritage Academy touchdown with 11 seconds to go, putting the Pats up two scores and elating the home sideline.
“I was going crazy,” sophomore Drew Huskison said. “There’s nothing better.”
Huskison, who joined the team late and dealt with several position switches in the secondary, made his own mark on the contest at a key moment late in the first quarter.
With the Vols up 12-0 and driving again, he knocked away a second-down pass headed for Starkville Academy wideout Wilkes Stubbs, several inches taller than Huskison, near the 25-yard line. Third down was essentially a replay as Huskison denied Stubbs a catch again near the same spot. The Vols punted the ball away.
“They were pretty big, I would say,” Huskison said. “If they completed that, the game could have been different.”
Instead, Starkville Academy was left wondering what could have been. Head coach Chase Nicholson blamed himself for a lack of preparation and what he said was poor play calling.
“I didn’t get them ready good enough,” he said. “I didn’t push them good enough. … This one’s on me.”
All three times Friday, Heritage Academy held firm on Starkville Academy’s extra-point attempts: After a bad snap, Miller’s PAT following the Vols’ first score was covered up right away, and Jackson was denied on a two-point try after a 15-yard score in the second quarter.
Harrison credited his defense for having the “mental toughness” to allow a touchdown but keep the Vols from adding on. Meanwhile, his offense was rounding into form.
Jaylan Stewart went down the sideline for a 24-yard score with 1:21 to go in the first quarter on the play after Davidson broke off a big run to get the Pats into plus territory. Davidson also took a third-down screen pass from Howard to the Vols’ 30 on the next possession.
“Braden, man, how ’bout that game?” Harrison said. “Without him tonight, we’re in trouble.”
Even when the Pats’ drive stalled with a turnover on downs from the 4, they forced a three-and-out to get the ball back. With 3:45 left in the half, Howard found Woodard past the sticks on third down, and the wideout turned and sprinted past every white-clad defender in sight for a go-ahead 43 yard touchdown.
Jackson answered with a 15-yard score with 1:48 left in the half to put Starkville Academy ahead for the final time. But he was barred from the end zone in the second half as the Patriots’ defense tightened up.
“It’s bad and all, but at the end of the day, we’ve got a lot more football to play,” Jackson said.
With one more game in the regular season — Heritage Academy travels to Greenville to play Washington School; Starkville Academy hosts Jackson Academy — the Patriots will likely win the district title, but the Vols aren’t bothered.
“District champion would be great, but that’s not where we’re trying to go,” Nicholson said. “Our road’s still out in front of us. We’ve still got plenty of work in front of us, we’ve still got plenty of football games in front of us, and this thing don’t stop. We just keep rolling.”
After the game — which put Heritage Academy ahead 27-26 in the all-time series — the two teams filed off the field without shaking hands, another reminder of the COVID-19 protocols put in place. The Vols boarded their westbound buses quietly; the Pats were mobbed by fans and parents just outside the field.
It brought to mind last season, when Heritage Academy won all 14 of its games and beat the Vols for the second time that year in the state championship game. With outputs of 42-7 and 55-10, the Pats’ offense was the story — but just like Friday, their defense was there when it was needed most.
“The defense last year was so good; we just scored a bunch of points, too,” Harrison said. “They carried it for us again.”
Heritage Academy 27, Starkville Academy 18
SA 12 6 0 0 — 18
HA 7 7 7 6 — 27
SA — Colby Allen 2 run (kick failed), clock 10:20
SA — CJ Jackson 47 run (run failed), clock 6:24
HA — Jaylan Stewart 24 run (Luke Fisher kick), clock 1:21
HA — Mitchell Woodard 43 pass from Mack Howard (Fisher kick), clock 3:45
SA — Jackson 15 TD (run failed), clock 1:48
HA — Harris Gunter 9 pass from Howard (Fisher kick), clock 4:34
HA — Jonathan Peal 28 fumble recovery (kick failed), clock 0:11
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.