As the final seconds ticked off the clock Friday night, the Starkville Academy football team had its best chance to score against Heritage Academy. After being kept out of the end zone for 47 minutes, the Vols were knocking on the door after a penalty gave them first-and-goal at the HA 9.
Two plays later, senior Brady Johnson had a little room in the front corner of the end zone, and as the throw from Briggs Bennett headed his way it looked as if the Vols would avoid a shutout in this tightly contested rivalry.
Patriots defensive back Noah Madan had one thought:
Not on my watch.
Madan reached out and deflected the ball away from Johnson, preserving a 30-0 victory for the Patriots and recording Heritage’s first shutout in the series since a 35-0 win in 1991.
It was the first Class 5A Region 1 game for the Volunteers (2-3), while Heritage improved to 6-0, 2-0 in the region including a forfeit win against Washington Academy.
“They ran an out route the play before that, and he was looking for the ball, so I knew they were going to run it again,” Madan said. “I saw the QBs eyes going to him immediately, and I hit it as hard as I could.”
The score is somewhat deceiving, not that the Patriots didn’t dominate but it took a while for them to pull away from the Volunteers. It was still a 10-0 game more than halfway through the third quarter when quarterback Mack Howard looked deep down the right sideline for Trey Naugher, who, despite two defenders in on the play, made the catch for a 42-yard touchdown.
“There was just great protection from the O-line and a great ball by Mack,” said Naugher, who closed the scoring by getting open for a 48-yard pass from Howard and also had a monster game on defense. “I was going up to try and make a play and help my team win.”
Until then, the Patriots were the better team but had little to show for it, as the Vols didn’t make anything easy against a Heritage team that was scoring 40 points per game.
“I thought the first quarter was some self-inflicted wounds, but really from then on out they had a great plan for us,” Heritage coach Sean Harrison said.
Part of that plan had to be slowing down Howard, and for much of the game the Vols did, holding him to 11 completions in 23 attempts and not letting him run for much yardage. But four of those completions were for touchdowns, the two to Naugher, a 23-yarder to Mitchell Woodard and a 40-yarder to Ladarius Flowers.
The first touchdown looked a lot like the last one, with a Heritage receiver wide open over the middle. That score, less than 3 minutes into the game following a three-and-out by Starkville Academy, made it look like the rout was on.
Except that it wasn’t. As little as the Vols could do on offense — they punted on their first three drives, turned over the ball on downs on their fourth and would have punted on their fifth had a bad snap not sent everyone chasing a loose football — the Patriots were aware of the danger posed by the SA offense.
“Their quarterback, Randall (Futral), is a great player, and they’ve got a great O-line, and they’re just a great team overall,” Naugher said. “We knew we had to come out and play great defense to win the game.”
Heritage did exactly that, holding Futral to a 9-of-24, 76-yard night and keeping him to 41 yards rushing. Overall, the Vols could not crack 100 yards despite 39 rushing attempts.
“Our defense was amazing,” Madan said. “Our offense has some things to work on, but our defense was amazing.”
“These kids don’t know how blessed they are to play for Russ Whiteside,” Harrison said of the defensive coordinator who came to Heritage with Harrison six seasons ago. “Our defense carries us every week. I know 40 points a game sells newspapers, but the schemes he puts us in, and the way the kids play their hearts out for him, we’re so fortunate to have him.”
And when it was time to finally put away the Vols, the Heritage offense had the weapons to do it.
“There at the end Mack’s going to be Mack, and Trey and Mitchell are going to be Trey and Mitchell,” Harrison said.
But the number that sticks out remains the zero on the other side of the scoreboard.
“It’s always fun to hang that zero,” Harrison said. “Those guys don’t lack for confidence. Through five games our starting defense has given up 14, 21 points maybe. I’m proud of the young guys getting in there and keeping that zero.”
“It was really important,” Madan added. “I was screaming the entire goal-line stand, the entire time.”
Madan noted that the current group of varsity players at Heritage has never lost to Starkville Academy. While the overall series is tight — the Patriots lead 28-26 in a rivalry that dates to 1971 — Heritage has won the past six, including two playoff victories.
“We play for each other,” Naugher said. “We’re all brothers; we just love each other. We just want to represent the name on our chests and do everything 110 percent just to get better every week.”
The next chance to get better will come Friday when the Patriots will host Bayou Academy (4-1, 1-0 5A-1). Starkville Academy returns home that night for a nonleague game against Winston Academy (4-1).
Heritage Academy 30, Starkville Academy 0
Starkville Academy (2-3) 0 0 0 0 — 0
Heritage Academy (6-0) 7 3 7 13 — 30
HA — Flowers 40 pass from Howard (Jonathan Peal kick), 9:28
HA — Peal FG 30, 4:12
HA — Naugher 42 pass from Howard (Peal kick), 4:26
HA — Woodard 23 pass from Howard (kick failed), 8:12
HA — Naugher 48 pass from Howard (Peal kick), 2:34