HATTIESBURG – It wasn’t quite business as usual for the top-ranked team in Mississippi.
Oak Grove, newly installed atop the SBLive Power 10 and the Class 6A coaches poll after Starkville lost last week, nearly suffered the same fate at the hands of upset-minded Brandon this week.
But the Warriors got a stop on a two-point conversion that would have tied the game late in the fourth quarter, then were able to run out the clock to preserve a 24-22 victory over the Bulldogs in Region 3-6A action Friday night at Warrior Field.
Oak Grove improved to 7-0 overall and 5-0 in region, clinching a playoff berth in the process. Brandon dropped to 4-5 and 2-3 but is still in the running for a postseason berth.
“I hope so,” said Warrior coach Drew Causey when asked if the outcome was a wake-up call for his team, which had not been seriously challenged in its six previous games.
“We definitely didn’t play with the energy the way we needed to play. To be honest, I felt like we played awful. When you start looking at press clippings and start listening to what people are saying about you, you start to think you’re good, then you come out and play like this.”
Everything looked in order at the outset, as Oak Grove took the opening kickoff and drove briskly down the field, capping a seven-play, 61-yard drive with Eugene Newell Jr.’s 25-yard scamper off left guard.
The big play was an encroachment call near midfield that turned a fourth-and-5 into a first down at the Brandon 40-yard-line.
The Warriors padded their lead early in the second quarter on Michael Owens’ 25-yard field goal, but it came after a false start on a fourth-and-goal from the Bulldog 3, forcing Oak Grove to settle for the field goal.
And mistakes like that would dog the Warriors all night, as they were flagged for 14 penalties totaling 125 yards.
Fortunately, Oak Grove played lights-out defense in the first half, holding the Bulldogs to just one first down and 19 yards of total offense.
“We came out pretty strong, but we gave up a few big plays (in the second half),” said senior linebacker Zach Little. “I didn’t really do as good as I’d hoped I would, but I feel like I got better as the game went on.”
Brandon came out in the second half attacking the interior of the Oak Grove defense, and had good success at it, then used screen passes to keep the Warriors off balance.
Bulldog senior quarterback Josh Sullivan and senior running back Zailon Johnson hooked up on screens that went for 30 and 23 yards, then Sullivan found senior tight end Will Tyndall in the end zone for an 8-yard scoring pass.
However, the PAT kick failed, and that would loom large in the outcome.
Oak Grove needed just one play to dent the scoreboard, as junior Tyrell Pollard took a bubble screen from junior quarterback Kabe Barnett, broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage, skipped out of another tackle and dashed down the sideline for a 91-yard scoring play.
But the Bulldogs were undaunted and took the ensuing kickoff 80 yards on 13 plays, helped by a pair of critical penalties, and got the score on a 1-yard plunge by Sullivan.
“We played high, we didn’t play physical, we were getting blown off the ball, and that’s unacceptable,” said Causey. “We’re not anywhere near where we need to be with two ball games left in the regular season.”
Nevertheless, Oak Grove played the field position game to its advantage, taking over at the Bulldog 36 for a quick four-play drive. Senior Courtland Harris had runs of 6 and 10 yards, then Newell scored his second touchdown of the game on an 11-yard run.
“We didn’t play very well in the first half, and really didn’t play good in the second half either,” said Harris, who carried 16 times for 115 yards. “But we were able to come out with the win. We just have to stay focused and stop letting people get in our heads.”
Brandon narrowed Oak Grove’s lead to 24-16 on a 27-yard field goal by Jacob Keys, after the Bulldogs got as far as the Oak Grove 7.
Little made a stop for a 3-yard loss on a screen, then junior cornerback Quintin Sterling broke up the third-down pass play in the end zone to force the field goal.
But the defense had to step up again after the Warriors committed the only turnover of the game, losing a fumble at the Oak Grove 35.
After a sack for a 5-yard loss, Sullivan and Johnson connected again on a screen pass for a score. Johnson broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and dashed for a 40-yard scoring play. For the night, Johnson caught seven passes for 116 yards.
The Bulldogs tried to run a flea-flicker, but the Warriors sniffed it out, and junior Adarius Haynes tackled Brandon’s Ozarrio Smith short of the goal line.
“We were getting blown off the ball a little bit, playing high, and we just weren’t where we need to be right now,” said Little. “I feel like we needed this as a team to show that on any night you can be beaten, no matter how good people say you are.”
Still, championship caliber teams find ways to win when they’re not at their best, and the Warriors turned to its potent ground game to seal the deal.
Harris had runs of 11 and 13 yards, Newell had a 13-yard pickup, then Harris had two more runs of 9 and 7 yards to get Oak Grove inside the Brandon 10, then another encroachment call from the 6-yard line gave the Warriors one final first down to win it.
“The last drive, we knew we had to get a few first downs to run the clock out and get the win.” said Harris.
Oak Grove will complete its regular-season home schedule next week against Pearl, before traveling to Northwest Rankin, which could be a showdown for the region championship. Brandon has a home game next week against NWR, then completes its season at Pearl.
— Stan Caldwell
(Feature photo by Keith Warren)