There’s only one high school football team left standing from the state’s southernmost six counties — Poplarville.
The Hornets take on Lafayette at 3 p.m. on Saturday for the Class 4A state title in Starkville. Members of the Sun Herald sports staff sat down this week to explain their predictions for the big game.
To the picks.
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Poplarville 31, Lafayette 28: Poplarville rolled through the 4A South State playoffs in convincing fashion and is one of the hottest teams in the state regardless of classification.
If junior running back Austin Bolton isn’t on the field Saturday because of an ankle sprain, it will be a tough road against a talented Lafayette County squad. Even if Bolton is on the field, it’s unlikely he’ll be 100 percent healthy.
Poplarville coach Jay Beech wasn’t entirely sure early in the week if Bolton will be available, but he has shown some progress.
The good news for Poplarville is that they have multiple running backs who can break the big play. Senior fullback Jesse Pernell has run the ball 189 times for 1,614 yards and 26 touchdowns. Sophomore Tyson Holston has also proven to be a playmaker in the postseason.
Lafayette hasn’t faced the Wing-T offense at all this season. If the Commodores aren’t fully prepared for the Hornets’ offense, it won’t matter who is carrying the ball.
Poplarville is good enough on defense to come up with some stops Saturday.
Lafayette 34, Poplarville 21: If Poplarville is missing the dash to its flash-and-dash backfield in Austin Bolton, the Class 4A title game may be a long game for the first-time South State champs.
Along with Jesse Pernell, Bolton helped form one of South Mississippi’s best running back tandems, with the junior providing the big-play threat to the senior’s tough between the tackles running. The Hornets do have some depth behind Bolton, however. Sophomore QB Antonio Barnes and athlete Tyson Holston will need to be accounted for while they’re on the field.
As for Lafayette (12-2), the Commodores’ season played out much like the Hornets. After losing their first two games, Lafayette cruised all the way to North State, where they squeaked by Pontotoc 21-14. The ‘Dores are a spread-to-run multiple offense with weapons at multiple positions. Quarterback Will Ard isn’t a threat to run, but he has thrown for more than 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns against just three interceptions. His go-to targets are both two-way D1 athletes in senior Tyler White and sophomore Brandon Turnage. Williams, a Mississippi State signee, is headed for the Mississippi/Alabama all-star game next week and leads the ‘Dores with 37 receptions, 718 yards and eight touchdowns. The 6-foot-2 athlete also has 37 tackles and is one of five Commodores with at least two interceptions.
Turnage, meanwhile, is a burner. He caught 20 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns but is really noticeable on defense, where he’s tied with Xavier Martin for the team lead in interceptions with six. Offensively, junior running back Jamarcus Quarles makes the Commodores go. He has eclipsed 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground and was compared to me as the high school version of Frank Gore; can get tough yardage, but watch out if he gets free.
Cory Williams will have to be accounted for by the Hornets’ defense. The senior defensive end isn’t huge at 6-foot-1,180 pounds, but he’s disruptive and leads LHS with 10 sacks and 12 QB hurries. He’s second on the team with 129 tackles. Dillon Woods is the “heart and soul” of Lafayette’s defense. He doesn’t lead the team in tackles (119), but he does a little of everything.
All things considered, if Bolton isn’t healthy I think the Hornets will have a hard time clinching the school’s first state championship.
Poplarville 38, Lafayette 29: Lafayette is red-hot, having won 12 straight after a 0-2 start. The Commodores have a stout defense that allows 11 points a game and a strong running game behind Jamarcus Quarles’ 2000 yards rushing.
Poplarville’s Wing-T offense has been unstoppable all year, even in its only loss to St. Martin. Austin Bolton and Jesse Pernell each have rushed for over 1,400 yards. In the end, the Hornets won’t waste their first ever trip to the 4A state finals and hold off a late Commodore rally.
Jay Beech should earn coach of the year honor statewide for the outstanding work he’s done with the Hornets.
Who: Poplarville vs. Lafayette
What: 4A state title game
When: 3 p.m., Saturday
Where: Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville
Radio: 1320 AM, WRJW.com