The Poplarville football team took it to Louisville for the first 15 minutes of Saturday’s Class 4A state title game at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
The next 33 minutes mostly belonged to Louisville.
With a 25-20 victory, Louisville head coach M.C. Miller earned his third state championship in what may be his last game after 45 years in the profession.
Poplarville jumped out to a 14-0 lead at the 9:49 mark of the second quarter on Tyson Holston’s second of three touchdowns in the game, but the Hornets failed to build on the early momentum to hold off a much bigger Louisville squad.
For Louisville, it was simply a matter of adjusting to Poplarville’s potent Wing-T offense.
Poplarville out-gained Louisville 122-1 to start the game, but the Wildcats found their way on offense behind quarterback Deonte Yarbrough and won the yardage battle 356-156 over the final 33 minutes of action.
Louisville (15-1) made the decision to stack the box on defense and that proved to be the right call before a crowd of 5,263.
“We knew our offense would come back and move the ball on them because they had shut themselves down,” Miller said. “Our defense had to get together and stop them. They wanted to drive the ball down the field slow, 3 yards and a cloud of dust. I told them we had to stop that. We went without a free safety and went to a 5-4 (scheme on defense).”
Saturday’s defeat was difficult for a Poplarville squad that came up shy in the state title game for the second time in the last three years after losing 27-12 to Lafayette County in 2016.
“I thought we laid it all on the line, gave it everything we had,” Poplarville coach Jay Beech said. “These guys wanted it bad, believed we could do it. Nobody doubted. We come up short. That’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Saturday’s loss ended a 13-game winning streak for the Hornets and set their final mark at 13-2.
Poplarville made a pair of key mistakes late in the game that prevented the Hornets from mounting a rally.
n First, Poplarville junior safety Kevin Hart was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after the Hornets hit Yarbrough for a 1-yard loss on third-and-2 from the Poplarville 42. Hart celebrated the tackle by spiking the ball, drawing a flag and a Louisville first down with 10:20 remaining.
On the next play, Yarbrough threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Niselbylon Kirk to make it 25-20 with 10:08 left.
n Second, junior running back Cory Knight fumbled at the end of a 15-yard run that would have set the Hornets up for a first down at their own 42 with 2:33 remaining in the game.
The Wildcats recovered the fumble and came up with a first down to run out the clock.
While the Hornets made a couple of crucial mistakes in the fourth quarter, they were also the victim of some bad luck due to injuries to junior running back Chase Shears and senior quarterback Antonio Barnes.
For the second year in a row, the Class 4A South State champion lost its star running back to injury and couldn’t hold on in the second half of the state title game.
A year ago, East Central running back Tony Brown was lost to a shoulder injury in the second quarter of a 41-35 loss to Noxubee County.
On Saturday, Shears left the game twice in the third quarter with cramps and didn’t return after the second instance with about 5 minutes left in the third.
“Chase is an impact player for us,” Barnes said. “For him to go down to injury, it hurt.”
Shears, who had only one rush in the second half, finished with 12 carries for 77 yards.
Barnes suffered a shoulder injury when he pulled in an interception on defense late in the second quarter. Junior Blaise Breerwood, who started the second half at quarterback, and Brown split snaps for much of the second half for the Hornets, who failed to complete a pass in the game.
“We felt like we were moving the ball and they put 11 in the box,” Beech said. “Our quarterback (Barnes) couldn’t even feel his arm, but he’s out there still playing. It kind of limited what we could do.”
While Barnes and Shears were limited with injuries, Holston turned in a strong showing in his final game as a Hornet. He ran 13 times for 93 yards and accounted for all three of Poplarville’s touchdowns.
“He’s a 4-year starter for us, somebody we count on. He had a great game,” Beech said.
Yarbrough earned the MVP honor by running 19 times for 160 yards. He also completed 12 of 20 passes for 120 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, the Poplarville defense had a tough time getting the senior quarterback to the ground.
When Louisville put the ball in Yarbrough’s hands, that presented a major problem for the Hornets’ coaching staff.
“Do we want a deep safety to cover those receivers? Do we want to take somebody out of the box and let the quarterback run?,” Beech said. “They’ve got a very talented team. We were just doing our best. Our defense hung in there as long as they could.”
Class 6A: Horn Lake 31, Oak Grove 27.
Class 2A: Nanih Waiya 21, Simmons 18.
Class 3A: Water Valley 34, Seminary 28.