PETAL – Justin Hunter is living right.
Hunter’s Pearl High football team lost two of its biggest stars late in the first half against Petal Friday when quarterback Jerry Johnson and running back Jaquavian Shoto left the game with injuries.
But thanks to a speedy start that saw the Pirates reel off touchdown drives on their first three possessions of the game, Pearl was able to weather those losses with an improvised offense in the second half and cruised to a 38-12 victory at Panther Stadium.
Pearl improved to 4-1 overall with the victory in the Region 3-6A opener for both teams; Petal dropped to 3-2.
“I’m super proud of our kids,” Hunter said. “Coming down to what I think is one of the finest facilities in the state, against good coaches, a good atmosphere and getting a big win. I’m super excited for our kids.”
The Pirates jumped all over Petal with a lightning first quarter. Pearl ran just 16 plays in the first quarter, almost all of them big gainers.
Taking the opening kickoff of the game, the Pirates drove 75 yards in six plays, getting big chunks of yardage on a 28-yard pass from Johnson to senior Cody Armes, a 17-yard run by senior Jamari Thompson and the touchdown on Johnson’s 19-yard keeper.
“I thought our coaches put together a great game plan and our players executed it,” said Hunter. “Our defense is playing lights-out right now, really getting us into some good situations. Kids are just making plays.”
After getting the ball back on a punt at their own 7-yard line, Pearl again needed just six plays to score, when Shoto burst through the line and dashed 60-yards down the right sideline for the touchdown.
The Pirates’ defense got a three-and-out, and this time they needed just 45 seconds and four plays to go 56 yards, scoring on a 34-yard pass from Johnson to senior Justice Moore.
And that essentially was the game.
“We didn’t have a very good night at all, period,” said Petal coach Allen Glenn. “Just a very disappointing start to the game, obviously. Pearl did a great job. They were very well-prepared, and we weren’t very prepared early, and that’s a testament to Pearl.
“They had a great game plan coming in, one that we didn’t do a very good job of attacking. They did what they’ve done on film. We didn’t account for the quarterback on a few formations.”
The Panthers finally got a stop on Pearl’s fourth possession early in the second quarter, and had a good drive going, as sophomore quarterback Cayden Burger was able to get the passing game going.
But Petal lost a fumble at the Pearl 15, then after getting the ball right back on a three-and-out and a short punt, the Panthers went nowhere, and Nate Jones was wide left on a 36-yard field goal attempt.
Misfortune stalked the Pirates on what proved to be the last possession of the first half.
Petal appeared to have Pearl stopped on a third down at the Pirate 37, but the Panthers were called for roughing the passer, knocking Johnson out of the game with a concussion.
“(Johnson’s) fine; the trainers said he could have gone back in at halftime,” Hunter said. “Under the circumstances, I wasn’t going to put him back in.”
With Thompson running the offense out of the wildcat formation, Pearl got close enough for Armes to kick a 34-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.
During the drive, Shoto suffered a deep cut to his forehead that required a quick trip to Forrest General Hospital for several stitches.
“Our backup quarterback had a cast on and didn’t dress,” Hunter said. “Our third-string, our JV guy, had a cast on. Shoto, he’s our fourth quarterback. So, Jamari was our fifth-string quarterback. He’d never played quarterback before in his life.
“He didn’t look like that tonight, but he came in there and did a great job. Our coaches put together a game plan for him at halftime.”
The Pirates quickly got a chance to see their improvised offense after Petal took the second-half kickoff 70 yards on just four plays. The big play was a 57-yard catch-and-run from Burger to sophomore Nehemiah Taylor to the Pearl 4.
Two runs of 2-yards by junior Ryan Poole got the Panthers into the end zone. However, the PAT kick was missed, and the score stayed at 24-6.
That lasted all of 35 seconds. On the first play after the kickoff, Thompson broke through the line, got to the sideline and rumbled 76 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the Panther 2-yard-line.
Thompson quickly took care of those yards for the score, the first of two rushing touchdowns for the big senior back. For the night, Thompson ran 21 times for 226 yards.
“I’m a runner, first,” said Thompson. “But the coaches put together a plan that I could execute. I knew I had to put my team on my back. I want to thank God first, because he put me here to lead my team.
“My coaches were giving me game plans on how to run certain plays, because I don’t practice at quarterback; I’m strictly a running back. But it was a natural feeling for me.”
Thompson got his second touchdown of the game, capping an 11-play, 70-yard drive that consumed 7 minutes, 8 seconds off the third-quarter clock. In all, the Pirates owned the ball almost 18 minutes in the second half.
Poole got Petal into the end zone early in the fourth quarter, scoring on an 18-yard run. However, the Petal tailback was held to just 69 rushing yards on 17 carries, 40 of those yards coming on the last scoring drive.
“We knew they couldn’t run on us,” said Pearl senior linebacker Trystin Carpenter. “I love these guys; they’ve got my back and I’ve got their back, and we’re going to keep on hitting people in the mouth.
“They knew they had to do something to get the ball down the field, and it was mostly hitch passes and getting outside, but we eventually shut that down.”
On a positive note for Petal, Burger had a solid game for the Panthers, completing 12 of 18 passes for 172 yards.
“He’s growing,” Glenn said. “He’s still a young kid. There were times when I thought he threw it well; there were times I thought he should have stayed in the pocket, made the throw and taken the hit.
“Young quarterbacks, when they fell the pressure, they tend to scramble.”
But the Panthers had no answer for the ground game of Pearl. The Pirates amassed 399 rushing yards on 55 runs and did not even think about passing in the second half. Pearl also did not have a turnover in the game.
“Our offensive line did a great job,” said Hunter. “They controlled the game tonight.”
The good news for Pearl is that both Johnson and Shoto should be able to play next week when the Pirates host Meridian in another region showdown.
Petal, however, goes from the frying pan to the fire, traveling across town next week to battle Oak Grove.
“We’d better get back on track pretty quick,” Glenn said. “We’ve got Oak Grove next week. We play in a tough division, so it’s a war every Friday night and it’s one we embrace. So, we’ve got to come back Monday ready to work.”
(Feature photo by Keith Warren)