By Stan Caldwell / The Hattiesburg American
The Meridian Star
OAK GROVE —
Typical Oak Grove-Meridian.
In a rivalry that has seen more than its share of epic contests, frantic finishes
and high theatrics, this one may have topped them all.
Left for dead at halftime after giving up touchdowns on four consecutive Meridian possessions, Oak Grove mounted a rally for the ages, overcoming a 28-9 halftime with two touchdowns in the final three minutes to knock off the Wildcats 31-28 Friday night at Warrior Field.
"We decided (at halftime) to play the last 24 minutes as hard as we had ever played before, and not take any plays off," said Oak Grove junior quarterback Kirk McCarty. "We proved what kind of team we have."
What the Warriors have is a team that came of age after last week's bitter, last-minute loss at Petal.
Oak Grove improved to 6-1 overall and 2-1 in Region 3-6A, while Meridian — which came into the game ranked sixth in the state overall and fourth in Class 6A — dropped to 5-2 and 1-2, and with Brandon and Petal yet to play, the Wildcats may have to scrap just to make the playoffs in the ultra-tough region.
"I've won a lot of games like this, and lost a lot of games like this," said Oak Grove coach Nevil Barr. "The last thing we talked about at halftime was that if we come back and win this game, it'll be something that will be talked about for a long, long time to come.
"And that's what we did."
Oak Grove won it behind the strong left arm of McCarty, who completed 31 of 55 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns.
His 2-yard pass to Picasso Nelson, Jr. with 27.1 seconds to play capped a furious comeback that saw the Warriors make three huge plays in the final minutes to snatch the win away from Meridian, which thought it had the game comfortably in hand.
"I got nothing to say," said a shell-shocked Meridian coach Larry Weems.
What could he say? The Wildcats looked unbeatable in a brilliant second quarter blitz, led by sophomore quarterback J-Mar Smith, who was 7 of 9 for 140 yards and tossed three touchdowns in the first half.
Meridian made a 9-0 Oak Grove lead disappear in a big hurry, once the Wildcats got untracked.
Oak Grove grabbed the early lead on a 27-yard field goal by Luke Little and a 3-yard pass from McCarty to Johnathan McNair with 28.5 seconds to play in the first quarter, after the Warriors successfully executed an onside kick.
But Smith and the Wildcats needed just two plays and 17 seconds to get on the scoreboard, as Smith hit Richard L. McQuarley for a 37-yard touchdown.
In short order, the Wildcats added a 6-yard run by Smith, a 38-yard scoring strike from Smith to Richard E. McQuarley and a 15-yard TD from Smith to Issac Johnson, after recovering an Oak Grove fumble.
The last two scores came in the last 1:20 of the half, and appeared to send the Warriors reeling into the locker room.
"We talked in the locker room how we believe in our defense,"Barr said. "They had a couple of big plays, where we were in position and just didn't make the play. We felt like we just needed to step up and make the plays."
And the Warriors answered the call.
Oak Grove took the opening kickoff of the second half and drove 80 yards in 10 plays, culminating in a 22-yard burst by McNair on a draw play for a touchdown.
On the fourth play of the subsequent possession, senior safety John Addison Ford — who had gotten burned badly on one Wildcat touchdown — came back with an interception.
"I got turned around (on the Meridian touchdown)," Ford said. "When something like that happens, it makes you go through all of the plays in the back of your mind.
"Our motto is, 'know your role, do your job.' Tonight it was more of the mental aspect that carried us. We showed the character of our team."
In fact, Oak Grove held Meridian to just 71 yards of total offense in the second half.
And it was the defense that made the play that set up the winning score.
After Oak Grove closed the margin on a 1-yard pass from McCarty to Cameron Myers — on fourth down — the Warriors held on defense, then blocked the Wildcats' punt.
Starting at the Wildcat 28-yard-line, McCarty turned to his go-to guy — for this night at least — junior Jordan Mitchell for a 24-yard pass to the Meridian 4.
"We don't have one (standout) receiver, but we've got the best coaching staff in the state," said Mitchell, who led the Warriors with 127 yards on nine receptions. "They told me their corners would play off and that I was going to have a big night, and it ended up working out."
On the next play, McCarty found Nelson for the score. The Warriors ran the double-pass play, and Myers toos effortlessly to Gunnar Placide for the two-point conversion to make up for a blocked PAT kick earlier inthe game.
"It just happened to come my way," said Nelson. "I just tried to make a play I knew I could make. I just thank God for the opportunity."