Turnovers and miscues derailed Harrison Central's playoff run before it ever really started Friday night.
Coming off of an emotional victory over Ocean Springs the week before, the Red Rebels stumbled in their Class 6A playoff opener Friday, falling to Petal 40-21.
"We just had an off night. We had some mishaps in coverage and just didn't play great tonight," first-year HCHS coach Casey Cain said. "When you're in the playoffs you have to be at your best all night. You can't turn the ball over and give up big plays but we did. That was the difference in the game."
Turnovers were an Achilles heel for the Red Rebels (6-7 overall) much of the season. Cain thought they had it under control, but HCHS lost two fumbles, threw two interceptions and had a bad snap on the second possession of the game end up in the end zone for the Panthers' second touchdown.
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"You have to win the turnover battle and can't give up explosive plays on defense and we did," Cain said.
The Panthers (8-5) opened the scoring on their first drive with a 3-yard run by receiver Tanner Estill out of the wildcat. Stevie Lewis pushed Petal's lead to 14-0 when HCHS sailed a snap over the punter's head with just under a minute left in the first quarter and the senior pounced on it in the end zone.
HCHS quarterback Tavis Williams scored on a 1-yard run to pull HCHS within seven, but Petal quarterback Samuel Hopper connected with Estill for the first of two touchdowns, this one going 50 yards, to push Petal ahead 21-7.
Despite the early struggles - Harrison Central's final two drives of the first half ended in a fumble and interception - the Red Rebels only trailed by seven thanks to a 28-yard touchdown pass from Williams to Malik Blackston mid-way through the second quarter.
Petal pulled away in the second half, scoring on its first two possessions on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Hopper to running back Stephon Huderson, and a 12-yard pass to Nigel Wood after a Williams fumble.
Blackston caught a 17-yard touchdown pass over the middle from Williams on Harrison Central's next drive, but Petal responded two possessions later when Hopper hit Estill over the middle for a 19-yard score to cap the scoring at 40-21.
"I thought offensive coming out and scoring on the first drive was huge, then forcing three-and-outs and the bad snap on the punt. Our kids played hard," Petal coach Marcus Boyles said. "I really thought the difference, to me, was the second half. Our defense adjusted and played their butts off."
Hopper threw two first-half interceptions but ended up completing 14 of 23 passes for 227 yards and four touchdowns.
"He probably had one throw he'd want to have back - the other interception was a busted route," Boyles said. "He delivered the ball to who needed to make plays."
Estill was a go-to target, finishing with seven receptions for 162 yards and two scores. Huderson had a game-high 145 yards rushing.
Williams finished with 167 yards passing and 72 rushing yards, both team highs. Dee White caught four passes for 62 yards.
With the win, Petal advances to face the Brandon Bulldogs, who defeated D'Iberville 41-7.