MONTICELLO – The highly-anticipated clash between two of the top running backs in Mississippi delivered as advertised.
And when it was over, it was Poplarville freshman Tylan Keys whose team stood victorious.
Keys rushed for 162 yards and three touchdowns in leading Hornet a 44-20 triumph over Ahmad Hardy and Lawrence County Friday night in the quarterfinal round of the Class 4A playoffs.
Poplarville (10-3) advanced to the South State championship for the seventh time in the past eight seasons next week at Columbia. The Cougars finished their season 7-6.
“This was a war,” said Poplarville coach Jay Beech. “Both teams getting after it, back and forth. They’re a really good football team, super talented. It was very tough. It took all we had, every ounce of courage and heart that we had.”
No doubt about that. Lawrence County showed it was ready for battle from the very first possession of the game. The Cougars took the opening kickoff and drove briskly down the field for a five-play, 60-yard scoring drive.
The big play was a 41-yard scamper by Hardy, the talented senior who came into the game with more than 2,200 rushing yards this season. And it was Hardy who got the score on a 10-yard run and a 6-0 lead after the run for the conversion failed.
“He’s a great running back,” said junior defensive end Josh Beck. “We game-planned for him all week. Our plan was to stop him, but he had some good runs in the first half, and they blocked really well.”
But Keys, who didn’t start for Poplarville until midway through the season, showed he was up to the challenge on the Hornets’ first play from scrimmage after the kickoff.
Starting from their own 46-yard-line, Keys burst right up the middle for a 50-yard pickup, to the Lawrence County 4, with two more yards tacked on for a horse collar tackle. After a 1-yard encroachment call, Keys took the ball in for the 1-yard touchdown run.
Kyler Boothe’s PAT kick put Poplarville ahead 7-6.
“It motivated me, going up against a talented back like him,” said Keys. “It pushed me all week. I was working hard all week in practice getting ready for this, me and my line, working together.
“I knew I had to set a tone for my team on that first play, do whatever it takes.”
Lawrence County came right back with the first of two long, ground-chewing, clock-eating drives. The Cougars drove 65 yards on 11 plays that took 5 minutes, 51 seconds to complete.
Hardy had a run of 16 yards to put Lawrence County at the Hornet 4, and senior Markavion Owens got the score from there. Once again, the two-point try failed, but Lawrence County was back on top 12-7.
Again, Keys delivered for Poplarville on the ensuing possession. Junior Nick Miller roared 51 yards with the kickoff to set the Hornets up at the Cougar 25. On third-and-4 from the 19, senior Tyke Smith ran 18 yards and Keys covered the remaining yard for the score.
Boothe’s kick made it 14-12 still with over a minute remaining in the first quarter.
Back came Lawrence County with another long march, 11 plays for 73 yards that consumed 6:32 off the clock. The Cougars converted three third downs, including the touchdown on a surprise 37-yard pass from senior quarterback Kannon Cato to senior Terrell Gholar.
This time, Lawrence County gave the ball to Hardy for the PAT, and he got it in for a 20-14 lead.
“We were close to getting some stops in that first half, maybe fitting a little bit in the wrong spot, and they blocked us really well,” said Beech. “We straightened it out in the second half. That’s a heck of a job to hold them to 20 points.”
Then it was Keys’ time to shine again. On the second play of the possession, Keys burst off tackle for a 51-yard touchdown run. A 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration pushed the PAT back and Boothe’s kick came up just short to keep the game tied 20-20.
The game turned on the ensuing possession. Hardy converted another third down with a 12-yard run to the Cougar 41 and two plays later, they faced a third-and-1 from the 50-yard line.
Up to that point, the Cougars had converted five of six third downs, as well as a fourth down on an earlier possession.
This time, however, Poplarville stopped Hardy cold on two straight plays, giving the Hornets the ball at midfield with 1:05 to play in the period.
“Fourth-down stop, man, you’ve just got to be gritty,” said Beck. “Whether it’s an inch or however far it is, just keep grinding and do whatever we can to stop them.”
Keys knew what to do with the ball when the Hornets got the ball back. Three straight runs of 11, 13 and 11 yards put Poplarville at the Lawrence County 15 with nine seconds left in the first half.
The Hornets tried a pass to the end zone that was just knocked away by the Cougar secondary, and with four seconds left, Beech sent Boothe out for a 32-yard field goal.
The sophomore kicker atoned for his earlier miss by drilling the kick with plenty to spare to send Poplarville into halftime with a 23-20 lead.
“He’s a weapon for us,” said Beech. “He’s done that for us all year in big times. I think this is the most field goals we’ve kicked in a season since I’ve been here. That’s huge.
The second half was all Poplarville, as the Hornets kept Hardy in check the way they were unable to do in the first half. Hardy finished with 170 yards on 24 carries, but he was held to just 36 yards in the second half.
“We caught on to what they had planned for us, and we stopped them in the second half,” said Beck. “We made a lot of adjustments on defense, moved some people around. Everybody just came out hard and ready to play tonight.”
Senior J.T. Robinson got the half started the right way by returning the opening kickoff 64 yard to the Lawrence County 9-yard-line.
Keys was stopped for a 1-yard loss on the first play, but Cougars couldn’t stop senior Lane Amacker on an old fashioned crossbuck play around left end for the 10-yard touchdown run and a 30-20 lead.
“There’s a lot of misdirection in this offense,” said Amacker. “We run it very well. We blocked really good tonight and we won. We’re going to South State.”
The Hornets failed to take advantage of the game’s only turnover, a fumble by Hardy at the Hornet 45. Poplarville drove as far as the Cougar 6, but Keys was stopped on third and fourth down to give the ball back to Lawrence County.
This time, however, the Hornets bowed up on defense, forcing a punt, and Poplarville went for some surprise of its own, a 66-yard catch-and-run from junior quarterback Sidney Blackmon to Amacker, who broke a tackle along the sideline and dashed in for the score.
“We talked about it all week,” said Amacker. “Those are the kind of plays you need to make to win big games. We knew we had to capitalize on those plays when we got the chance.”
Another pass, this from Blackmon to senior tight end Dakari Fulton for 53 yards kicked off Poplarville’s final scoring drive, with the touchdown coming on a 1-yard run by Miller.
Poplarville and Columbia are awfully familiar with each other. Until this year, the two teams were in the same region, and the last time they met in the postseason was two years ago when the Wildcats prevailed 12-7 in the South State finals.
“We know they’re an undefeated team, a great team with a bunch of talented players,” Beech said. “We’re just happy to have a chance to give them a shot.”