After a pair of losing seasons, the George County football team suddenly appears ready to take on all comers.
The Rebels (2-1) thrashed Pascagoula 42-14 Friday night behind a dominant defense led by senior defensive lineman McKinnley Jackson and an offense sparked by an upstart sophomore running back in Trent Howell.
The first half was as an impressive as a defense can be for 24 minutes as George County overwhelmed a young group of Panthers. The Rebels forced the Pascagoula offense into three interceptions, a lost fumble and a safety on its first five possessions.
The game ended in fitting fashion as George County junior defensive back M.J. Daniels picked off a pass and sprinted 60 yards into the end zone to set off a raucous celebration on the Rebels’ sideline.
After enduring seasons of 2-10 and 4-8, Jackson and the rest of his senior teammates were all smiles as they handed Pascagoula (2-1) its first loss of the season.
For Howell, it’s nice to see the seniors become familiar with winning again.
“It’s great. I’ve played with them my whole life,” he said. “I played Pee Wee with them when I was 5 years old. To see them like this, it’s great.”
Jackson came up with a pair of first-half sacks as the Rebels dominated the Panthers up front, regularly getting to freshman quarterback Keilon Parnell and his backup, sophomore Terrence Goodwin.
While Jackson wasn’t the only Rebel to turn in an impressive showing on defense Friday night, he was by far the most disruptive force. He was a man among boys Friday night and you can make an argument that it’s been that way since he stepped on the field as a freshman.
“In my 24 years, I’ve never seen anything like him,” George County coach Matt Caldwell said. “I know I’ve never coached anything like him. You talk about (former Wayne County stars) Jerrell Powe and Benito Jones and those guys like (former Moss Point standout) Willie Packer. He’s in the same group with those guys. He gets double- and triple-teamed all night long. He never gets a single block. Whatever he gets he has to work for.”
On Friday night, it felt as if everything came easy for Jackson.
“It felt like I had A-gap to A-gap wide open,” the 6-foot-2, 327-pound Jackson said. “It felt like nobody was there.”
Howell has experienced what it’s like to meet up with Jackson on a run up the middle, and it’s not an enjoyable experience.
“There’s not much you can do,” he said. “You just brace yourself.”
Nearly the entire SEC West is anxious to hear a decision from Jackson, who has narrowed his list of schools to Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M.
It seems they’ll have to wait as he said Friday that he plans to make his announcement on National Signing Day.
Da’mon Lawrence, Tajiri Washington and Aaron Ward each had interceptions in the first half. Ward returned his interception 45 yards for a touchdown to make it 22-0 with 6:31 left in the first half.
The defense is the strong point of the team with eight seniors starting on that side of the ball, but George County is finally starting to see production from an offense that only starts one senior.
The young star on offense Friday night was Howell, who was filling in for injured senior running back Jalyn Scott.
Listed at 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, Howell proved to be a handful for the Pascagoula defense with his speed and elusiveness. He ran 15 times for 126 yards, including touchdown runs of 56 and 38 yards.
“Trent came in during the fourth quarter last week (in a 24-0 win at Greene County) and did really well,” Caldwell said. “We had a man injured and it was next man up for Trent. He took his opportunity and showed out with it. He did a great job. Trent has been a guy coming up through junior high and ninth grade, we knew he had the skills and ability.
“You have to give a shout out to the offensive line because he had some big holes to run through sometimes, too.”
Howell looked mature in the George County backfield, running with a purpose, making defenders miss and out-running the secondary on both of his touchdowns.
“I just get out there and try to not get hit as much as I can and stuff happens,” he said. “The line held up great. Nothing would have happened if it wouldn’t have been them tonight.”
While it was unclear whether George County would its way back to the level they showed Friday night, Caldwell points back to the end of the 2018 campaign as a pivotal moment for the program.
“At the end of the year, we beat Meridian in the last game,” he said. “I usually give them a week off, but the seniors came in on Wednesday and said, ‘Coach, can we start lifting today?’ I knew right then we had a chance with guys that are hungry. We’ve been getting better every week. If we keep improving every week, I think we’ve got a chance to be a good football team.”