FLOWOOD — The Oak Grove Warriors may very well win the state championship, but no matter what the future holds, nobody can take away what they accomplished Friday night with a 56-30 win over the home-standing Northwest Rankin Cougars.
The Warriors finished the regular season undefeated at 9-0 thanks to a splendid four-touchdown performance from quarterback Kabe Barnett, picking up both the Region 3 crown and a top seed headed into the 6A playoffs.
“I’m extremely proud of our guys,” Oak Grove coach Drew Causey said. “They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do all season long. They’ve played extremely hard and they’ve followed all of our instructions from June 1 on about all this Covid junk, and they’ve shown up to work every day. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
The Warriors, ranked No. 1 since mid-October, looked the part of a post-season favorite in their season finale. They never trailed, built a 28-20 halftime lead and buried the Cougars in the second half.
Barnett was phenomenal. He completed 13 of 15 passes for 209 yards and four touchdowns, moved the chains with his legs when he needed to and orchestrated
“Kabe is playing his best football headed into the playoffs,” Causey said. “That’s huge for us.”
The junior hit sophomore J.Q. Gray for touchdown passes of 43 and 57 yards in the first half and added a 19-yard scoring toss to Jordan Coleman.
“JQ, he’s just a playmaker,” Barnett said. “You get him the ball, and he’ll make a play out of it.”
Gray — just 5-foot-7 but with exceptional speed — threw the praise right back on his quarterback.
“He puts in a lot of work and he’s always trying to make everybody better,” he said. “He’s great in the huddle. He has a loud voice and he directs us most of the time.”
As good as Barnett was, it was the Oak Grove defense that got the party started Friday night, when defensive back Jaylen Aborom stepped in front of the first Northwest Rankin pass attempt of the night and took it 40 yards the other way for a touchdown.
Northwest Rankin fought back in the first half. Quarterback Caleb Parten bounced back from the early pick and connected with Caleb McCoy on an 86-yard touchdown pass to cut the Oak Grove lead to 21-13 halfway through the second quarter.
The Cougars pulled within a point a few minutes later following another touchdown drive, but the Grovers stretched it back to 28-20 with a Courtland Harris touchdown run.
Causey said he challenged his big boys up front at halftime by asking them if they thought they were the best line in the state.
They responded that they were and then went out and played like it.
The Warriors averaged eight yards on 16 second-half carries for 160 rushing yards in the second half. Harris carried it nine times for 55 yards and two touchdowns, while Eugene Newell carried it six times for 20 yards and a score. Even Barnett got in on that action, scrambling six times for 67 yards.
That ball control helped the Warriors milk the clock while the Oak Grove defense went to work.
The Warriors tallied eight sacks, including two to start the possession in the fourth quarter following Barnett’s fourth touchdown pass of the night that put the Warriors ahead 49-27.
“We play an aggressive style of defense,” Causey said. “But we really don’t call a whole lot of blitzes, it’s more of a read thing. But our guys played … well, they played a lot better in that second half.”
The win sets the Warriors up with a first-round matchup against Biloxi, the fourth seed out of Region 4. The Indians (6-3) already had a lock on their playoff spot before winning at Gulfport for the first time since 1984 Friday night by a score of 7-6.
The Cougars (7-3) will have to settle for the two-seed out of Region 3. Northwest Rankin will host the No. 3 seed out of Region 4, Ocean Springs (9-2) in the first round next week.
(Feature photo by Keith Warren)