HATTIESBURG – It is a fact of life in football that the team that gets the most takeaways in a game is usually the team that wins.
And that was the case for Oak Grove Friday night in the Class 6A South State championship game, as the Warriors took advantage of five turnovers by Northwest Rankin for a 43-24 victory at Warrior Field.
The win sent Oak Grove (12-0) into the 6A finals for the third consecutive season, where the Warriors will face a rematch with defending state champion Oxford, which defeated Clinton in the North State finals. The Cougars finished 9-4.
“I’m proud of the fight our guys had tonight,” said Warrior coach Drew Causey, whose team will carry the state’s No. 1 ranking in both the SBLive Power 10 and Class 6A Coaches Poll to Jackson for the state finals.
“Our guys have got a ton of heart, the heart of a warrior. It was not ideal circumstances with it raining all night, so I couldn’t be more proud of our guys.”
A steady rain made for a slick ball, and that contributed to scores on both sides.
After an Oak Grove punt on the opening possession of the game, Northwest Rankin had a good drive going before the Cougars lost a fumble at the Oak Grove 28-yard-line. But four plays later, the Warriors returned the favor, losing a fumble at the Warrior 38.
This time, the Cougars cashed it in, with junior tailback Cam Marion scoring on a 1-yard run after a 37-yard pass play from senior quarterback Caleb Parten to junior Caleb McCoy got them close to the goal line.
But things began to turn for Oak Grove in the second quarter when sophomore safety Jaylen Aborom scooped up a loose ball and rambled 35 yards to the Cougar 11. Two runs of 8 and 3 yards by senior Courtland Harris got the Warriors on the scoreboard.
“We’re just unselfish,” said Harris, who led the Warriors with 134 yards on 13 carries. “I just want to thank our offensive line for helping us win this game. They help us with a 1-2 punch, and it keeps us getting fresh legs in the game.”
Oak Grove seemed to take command late in the second quarter, as the Warriors began to kick-start their offense.
Starting at their own 14, Oak Grove marched 86 yards on 10 plays for a go-ahead touchdown. Senior Eugene Newell Jr. had runs of 14 and 8 yards, then Harris added an 18-yard scamper and a 34-yarder to get the Warriors inside the Cougar 10.
From there, junior quarterback Kabe Barnett dashed around left end on a bootleg play for a 7-yard scoring run.
On the second play after the kickoff, the Cougars again lost the handle, this time at their own 18, and Barnett converted the turnover into a 15-yard touchdown pass to senior Raheem Fairley.
However, the Cougars blocked Michael Owens’ PAT kick, leaving the score at 20-7 going into halftime.
“Absolutely, (turnovers) were the difference,” said Northwest Rankin coach Toby Culloms. “I thought our kids played hard, our coaches had a really good game plan coming in, and we did a good job of getting them off the field early and giving ourselves a chance.
“But you can’t turn the football over in big games against good teams.”
Nevertheless, Northwest Rankin came out in the second half and rocked the Warriors with a pair of splendid scoring drives to open the half.
Taking the second half kickoff, the Cougars needed just five plays to go 65 yards, the big play coming on a 52-yard pass from Parten to senior Jordan Cavitt for a touchdown.
After stopping the Warriors and forcing a punt, Northwest Rankin drove 71 yards on nine plays, with Marion scoring on a 40-yard burst up the middle. Christian Baglione’s kick put the Cougars back on top 21-20.
However, it didn’t take long for Oak Grove to respond, thanks to the arm and legs of Barnett. Junior Tyrell Pollard took a bubble screen for a 31-yard pickup, Barnett dashed around right end for 20, then hooked up with Fairley for a 24-yard scoring pass.
Parten had one more big play up his sleeve, a 45-yard pass to McCoy to the Oak Grove 10, but the Warriors held, forcing the Cougars to settle for a 29-yard Baglione field goal.
And the fourth quarter is when the Warriors put the hammer down. Barnett’s 24-yard run got Oak Grove into position for Owens to convert a 35-yard kick, then Aborom took over from his safety spot.
On the second play of the Cougars’ possession, Aborom swiped a pass over the middle to give the Warriors the ball at the Cougar 18. On third down, Barnett connected with Harris coming out of the backfield, and Harris took the catch for a 15-yard scoring play.
On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, Aborom was again in the right place, picking off a Parten pass along the sideline.
“We started out the first half a little slow, but we picked it up in the second half,” said Aborom. “It was just a matter of adjusting and getting the big plays. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
It was Harris who earned the final score on a 25-yard run up the middle. The senior transfer from Hattiesburg High keyed a Warrior ground attack that racked up 278 rushing yards. Newell added 92 yards on 18 carries and Barnett finished with 55 yards on five runs.
“For us, it’s just been taking what’s working for us at the time,” said Causey. “Whether it’s the passing game when we played them the time before. Our offensive line, we kind of put it on them. They accepted the challenge and played really well.”
After losing two agonizingly close contests the past two seasons in the 6A championship — to Horn Lake in 2018 and Oxford last season — getting back to the finals won’t be enough for Oak Grove.
“I knew what kind of offensive line they had here,” said Harris of his decision to move to Oak Grove from Hattiesburg in the offseason. “Nothing against my old school, but this was where I wanted to be. Now we’ve just got to go up and get the win.”
— Stan Caldwell