Poplarville head coach Jay Beech admits that his offense was essentially “the Austin Bolton show” for the last couple of seasons, with several other players making key contributions.
With Bolton graduated and now playing football at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, the Hornets suddenly have an impressive cast of characters, but no leading man.
That’s just fine by Beech, who has been handling play-calling duties this year.
“It’s fun,” he said. “We haven’t gotten super creative. It’s the same stuff we have been doing, but we have been a little more creative with the quarterback stuff.”
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Senior quarterback Antonio Barnes has put together his best season yet since taking over as the starting quarterback in 2016. He has completed 74.1 percent of his passes for 645 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. No Hornet has done a better job at getting into the end zone with Barnes running 49 times for 422 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Barnes, a long list of playmakers and a strong line will look to produce another big night on offense when Poplarville (11-1) plays host to South Pike (10-2) at 7 p.m. Friday with a spot in the Class 4A South State title game on the line. Friday night’s winner will face whoever comes out on top between West Lauderdale and East Central next week.
Poplarville has won 11 consecutive games since falling 28-20 to Picayune in the season opener. During the winning streak, the Hornets have rarely faced a significant challenge and they have scored at least 40 points in nine games.
Junior Ethan Taylor has been one of Poplarville’s more durable running backs and he leads the team in rushing with 85 rushes for 892 yards and six touchdowns.
Taylor’s 10.5 yards per carry is only topped by junior Chase Shears, who has 47 rushes for 723 yards and 12 touchdowns. At 15.4 yards a carry, Shears has been one of the state’s most explosive players despite playing in only eight games due to injury.
“He’s definitely a difference maker,” Beech said. “He’s pretty explosive when he’s out there. He still hasn’t gotten into full game shape. We’ve got Ethan Taylor we rotate in and he’s done an excellent job as well. We can go with a five-player rotation.”
Senior wingback Tyson Holston is Poplarville’s most versatile playmaker with 49 carries for 460 yards and four touchdowns. He also has 11 catches for 157 yards and two scores.
Holston has missed time recently with an injury, but Beech said there’s a good chance he’ll be back on the field Friday night.
It will be up to Poplarville’s strong front seven on defense to slow down a South Pike offense that’s led by dynamic junior quarterback Dontavious Turner, who has thrown for 1,293 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. On the ground, he has 98 carries for 1,034 yards and 16 scores.
My pick: Poplarville 38, South Pike 20.
Here’s how I see the two other playoff games playing out in South Mississippi:
Picayune 31, Laurel 20: Laurel (10-3) has won nine consecutive games, but I’m confident that Picayune (9-3) played a much tougher slate in Region 4-5A. Picayune will be the road team Friday night, but Dodd Lee’s squad will be up to the challenge. Hattiesburg (13-0) is the heavy favorite to advance to the Class 5A title game and Picayune is the only team that can put a scare into the Tigers in the southern half of the state. The winner of Picayune-Laurel will face the winner of Hattiesburg-West Jones in the South State title game.
East Central 28, West Lauderdale 14: West Lauderdale has put together an impressive 13-1 season, but it’s difficult to see the Knights winning in Hurley Friday night. They had to fight and claw to get past Vancleave 28-22 in the first round. East Central beat Vancleave 35-10 the week prior.
For East Central, last year’s 41-35 defeat to Noxubee County in the Class 4A title game still serves as motivation.
“I want it more than ever,” East Central senior linebacker Avery White said Tuesday. “Last year’s loss, I don’t want to feel that again. It’s tough being that close.”
If East Central and Poplarville advance Friday, Hornet Bowl II will take place in Hurley on Nov. 23.
7 p.m., Friday
Picayune at Laurel
West Lauderdale at East Central
South Pike at Poplarville