Austin Bolton proved Friday night why he’s considered one of the top running backs in South Mississippi.
For much of Friday’s rivalry showdown between No. 1 Poplarville and No. 4 Stone High, it appeared the Tomcats were finally going to break through and beat the Hornets for the first time since 2008, snapping a four-game skid.
Then Bolton took over, scoring twice in the fourth quarter to boost Poplarville to a 20-14 win at A.L. May Memorial Stadium.
The Hornets rotated carries between Tyson Holston, Roosevelt Raine and Bolton for much of the game, but with the game coming down to the final few possessions, Poplarville (4-0) changed it up.
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“We figured we would give it to No. 5 as many times as we could and see if he could get loose once or twice,” Poplarville coach Jay Beech said.
The change paid off big time.
After being contained for most of the game, Bolton finally broke a big run with just under 7 minutes remaining in the contest. The Hornets’ senior running back maneuvered through the middle of his line and down the visitor’s sideline for a 56-yard gain. Following an Antonio Barnes 15-yard completion to Holston, Bolton plunged into the end zone from 5 yards out. The Hornets were forced to go for 2 due to missing an earlier extra point attempt, but the Tomcats defense snuffed out the rushing attempt to cling to a 14-13 advantage.
After forcing the Tomcats (2-1) to punt on their next possession, Bolton put Poplarville ahead for good on a 37-yard run down Poplarville’s sideline. A successful 2-point conversion by Raine put the Hornets ahead 20-14 with 2:26 remaining and Stone was unable to mount its own comeback.
“We knew it was going to be a dog fight but we had to come out and keep fighting,” said Bolton, who finished with 187 yards on 22 carries. “I give it all to my O-line. They fought hard.”
All Tomcats early
Following last week’s win at Biloxi, SHS coach John Feaster preached that if his team played undisciplined again Friday the Tomcats would get embarrassed. His warning proved to be prophetic, at least early on Friday as Poplarville’s opening drive was prolonged by several Stone penalties. The Hornets ultimately drove 90 yards and scored on an 8-yard run by Holston, but missed the extra point.
It didn’t take Stone long to respond. Enrique Whaley returned the kickoff 71 yards, setting up Kentrell McCray’s 4-yard touchdown run around the right side of the line.
Two possessions later Stone found paydirt again. Set up by the first of two first-half interceptions by Demetrius Whittaker — and a 49-yard option run by Jakalyn Green — Trey Arrington powered through the middle of the line. The 2-yard score with 2:27 remaining in the first half put Stone ahead 14-6.
The Tomcats’ offense stalled in the second half and the home squad never really gained any momentum or sustained lengthy drives to chew up the clock.
“We have to get first downs. We didn’t get many, even in the first half,” Feaster said. “We didn’t put together any (drives) and that’s not fair to the kids. As the head coach I have to reevaluate the whole situation.”
Poplarville returns to the field next Friday with a road contest at Heidelberg. The Hornets open their Region 7-4A on Sept. 29 against Greene County.
Stone has its second bye week next Friday before opening 8-5A play against West Harrison.
“We’re going to go back and continue to grind. We’re grinders. That’s all we know here,” Feaster said. “We’re going to continue to work hard and let the kids know, don’t hang your head; just come back fighting.”