STARKVILLE — Inch by inch, yard by yard, Louisville made slow progress down the field.
The Wildcats trailed Starkville 20-16 during the third quarter of Friday’s game, but they knew they had all the time in the world to score the go-ahead touchdown.
On the Yellow Jackets’ turf, Louisville called the shots: A 6-yard pass here; a 7-yard run there. Play after play, the Wildcats kept the opposing defense on the field.
“They were driving it down our throat,” Starkville coach Chris Jones said. “Our guys were tired.”
When Louisville quarterback Jace Hudspeth found Jaden Triplett for the duo’s third touchdown connection of the night with 30 seconds left in the quarter, it put a capper on a brutal 20-play, 92-yard, 8-minute-and-23-second scoring drive.
But even with his team suddenly trailing by three points, Jones had a clear priority for Starkville’s next possession.
“I didn’t really care if we scored,” he said. “We needed to put a drive together to give our guys a break so we could be prepared when they get the ball the next time around.”
The Jackets promptly gave their coach a lot more than he asked for.
Starkville responded with a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive, running the ball on every single play, to give its defense that promised breather. A refreshed unit promptly shut out Louisville the rest of the game as the Jackets (4-0) held off the Wildcats (3-1) on Friday, 28-23.
“I think it was great to compete against them,” Jones said. “Fortunately, we came out with the win, but we’ve got a lot of cleaning up to do.”
Young football teams come with mistakes, and Starkville certainly was no exception Friday. Sophomore quarterback Trey Petty threw an interception on the Jackets’ third play from scrimmage, and sophomore wide receiver Braylon Burnside dropped a deep ball from Petty in the fourth quarter that likely would have been a game-sealing touchdown.
But each player made amends in a big way to keep Starkville unbeaten headed into next week’s Class 6A, Region 2 matchup with Madison Central.
Following a lightning delay of nearly an hour and a half one play after Dakota Steele picked him off, Petty found Johnathan Lampkin for a 31-yard touchdown and ran for a 15-yard score in the first quarter. In the second period, the sophomore had two nice throws to Burnside and Jaylon York to get the Jackets down to the 1-yard line before Tyler Nichols capped the drive with a short touchdown plunge.
And in the fourth quarter, after Jordan Mitchell scored from 2 yards away to give Starkville back the lead, Petty fumbled the snap on the extra point, picked it up and sprinted to the right corner of the end zone for an unexpected but skillful 2-point conversion.
Of course, none of those was Jones’ favorite play from his signal-caller. That was Petty’s choice to slide after one of his 13 runs for 61 yards, a sign of unselfishness when most sophomores would have risked a turnover or an injury for a few more yards.
“To me, he did a good job tonight,” Jones said of Petty.
The same can be said of Burnside, who couldn’t haul in Petty’s deep ball and turn a third-and-30 into a possible score late in the fourth quarter.
But the sophomore came up big on defense, picking off Hudspeth in Starkville territory with just seconds to go and nearly turning it into a touchdown in the process.
“He had a big drop that could have sealed the game, but he had an interception that sealed the game,” Jones said. “I don’t care how you do it — just get it done. It’s all about finishing.”
Starkville players raced down the field to mob Burnside and celebrate the victory, while on the opposite sideline, Louisville players were forced to process another close loss that could have been a big win in a series that has long been a local rivalry.
“They know those kids,” Wildcats coach Tyrone Shorter said. “I knew it was going to be a good game. Our guys aren’t afraid of anybody. They’re going to go toe to toe with anybody they face.”
That’s why Shorter isn’t afraid to schedule Class 6A teams like Starkville to prepare his team for the challenges they will face. Recently, it’s paid off for the Wildcats: Louisville beat Poplarville for last year’s Class 4A title, becoming a 10-time state champion.
And Shorter saw in Friday’s contest a similar atmosphere, despite the result.
“This is the way football should be in Mississippi,” he said. “I’m proud of our kids, and I know coach Jones is proud of his kids. It always comes down to the wire. We always fall a little bit short, but I’m proud of our guys.”
Starkville 28, Louisville 23
Starkville (4-0) 14 6 0 8 — 28
Louisville (3-1) 13 3 7 0 — 23
L — Jalen Triplett 11 pass from Jace Hudspeth (kick failed), 6:15
S — Johnathan Lampkin 31 pass from Trey Petty (Josh Eaves kick), 4:48
S — Petty 15 run (Eaves kick), 2:03
L — Triplett 56 pass from Hudspeth (Ceidrick Hunt kick), 0:57
S — Tyler Nichols 1 run (kick failed), 1:36
L — Hunt 25 FG, 0:00
L — Triplett 7 pass from Hudspeth (Hunt kick), 0:30
S — Jordan Mitchell 2 run (Petty run), 8:16
RUSHING: Louisville — Emory James 15-61, Ja Coleman 7-34, Jykevious Goss 5-14, Keyarrion Jackson 2-8, Jace Hudspeth 2-1; Starkville — Jordan Mitchell 13-70, Tyler Nichols 13-69, Trey Petty 13-61.
PASSING: Louisville — Jace Hudspeth 14-27, 183; Starkville — Trey Petty 6-11, 103.
RECEIVING: Louisville — Jaden Triplett 4-67, Jarvis Rush 3-48, Keyarrion Jackson 3-35, Ja Coleman 2-21, Jykevious Goss 2-12; Starkville — Johnathan Lampkin 2-43, Braylon Burnside 1-38, Jaylon York 1-29, Tyler Nichols 1-(-3), Jordan Mitchell 1-(-4).
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.