HATTIESBURG – Lewis Sims was lit up like a Christmas tree in his postgame address Friday night.
And why not? The veteran Pascagoula coach had just orchestrated an improbable 7-6 victory over homestanding Hattiesburg in the first round of the Class 6A high school football playoffs at D.I. Patrick Stadium.
The Panthers improved to 8-3 overall and advanced to a road rematch with Region 4-6A rival Picayune next week in the second round. Hattiesburg (7-4) was bounced from the playoffs in the first round for the third consecutive season.
“Look at that scoreboard,” Sims told his team in the postgame huddle. “Man, 7-6, that’s epic!”
Indeed it was. Pascagoula made one big play on its first possession of the game stand up, thanks to stalwart defense that bent at times, but only broke once.
“This was by far our best defensive game of the season,” said Sims. “They stood up when it counted. All the credit to Hattiesburg; they’re a heck of a football team.
“We’re so fortunate to come out with a W. But at the end of the day, it’s playoff football, and you couldn’t ask for a better football game.”
The swarming Panthers blitzed freely and made life miserable for Tiger junior quarterback Deuce Vance.
“That was the game plan,” said Pascagoula junior linebacker Jaylon Parnell. “We had the middle linebacker keying on the quarterback, with wide trips. I think we confused him a little bit.”
Vance was credited with 18 rushes for a net of minus-6 yards, which included two high snaps for 30 yards in losses, and four sacks for another 20 lost yards.
“That was the plan,” said Sims. “We just knew we had had to stay in. He’s such a good athletic quarterback, and he’s such a student of the game. We knew we had to be gap-savvy, and when did have opportunities to put pressure on, we had to make sure we got him down.
“We had a young guy, Derrick Bonds, who hadn’t had a sack all season, maybe hadn’t had five tackles all year, but he stepped up and made the very last play. He’s grown tremendously as a player and a young man.”
Vance was harassed every time he tried to pass, completing just 9 of 24 for 146 yards, most of that in the second half.
The pattern was set on the opening possession of the game. Pascagoula won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, and Hattiesburg took the opening kickoff and drove for two first downs before the Panthers stiffened near midfield.
The Tigers came in with a reputation for their defense, and after a punt, they forced Pascagoula into a third-and-14 from the Panther 20-yard line.
But junior quarterback Silas Corder found junior Christopher Campbell open over the middle on a slant pattern, and Campbell motored past the defense for an 80-yard touchdown.
Sophomore Wyatt McAdams was good on the PAT kick, and just like that, the Panthers had all the points they would end up needing.
“Third and long, they gave us what we wanted, and we just took it,” said Corder, who finished 7 of 17 for 114 yards.
“We thought we could score on any play. They gave us an of-three type coverage. They had a guy in our point man’s face, and that left a ravine of space open over the middle for our slot guy to go and get it and score.”
From there, the game fell into a back-and-forth contest of mistakes and missed opportunities on both sides.
Pascagoula would finish with just seven first downs for the game, and were stopped twice on fourth down in the first half, once on an 11-yard sack from the Tiger 39, and the other on a fake punt near midfield.
“Their d-line was strong, and No. 50 (junior Kevin Oatis) was giving us fits,” said Corder. “They showed a lot of fronts., with a 3-4 sometimes and a 4-3 others. They played great defense.”
Tiger senior Taveres Wade helped out his defense, averaging 41.6 yards on five punts, and he was also Hattiesburg’s best weapon on offense, rushing 23 times for 85 yards.
The Panthers had a promising drive in the second quarter thwarted by an interception on fourth down, and their best drive of the second half, coming after the Tigers scored their only touchdown, ended with a pick in the end zone.
Hattiesburg dominated the second half with three possessions that ate up more than 16 minutes, and the Tiger cashed the first one in for a touchdown, an eight-play, 67-yard march with Vance getting the score on a 6-yard run.
Vance hooked up with junior Demarcus Baker for a 41-yard pass play to get the drive going, after losing 17 yards on a high snap with the first play of the possession. Wade also had a 14-yard pickup and Vance converted a fourth down with a 17-yard toss to senior Tamoz Barnes.
However, Wade’s PAT kick was wide right, and that would prove to be the difference on the scoreboard.
Hattiesburg got the ball right back after the ensuing kickoff. Panther sophomore Amarie Jackson ripped off a 37-yard run to get Pascagoula in Tiger territory at the 28-yard-line, but two plays later, Baker snagged an underthrown ball in the end zone to stop the threat.
The Tigers took over at their own 20 and embarked on a long march that used up nearly eight minutes and got as far as the Panther 14.
But Vance was stopped for a 6-yard loss on a keeper, then on third-and-15, Parnell came free for a 6-yard sack, and Vance’s fourth-down pass went nowhere.
“We fought, we battled,” said Parnell. “I’m just proud of my boys. We stopped balls and just fought, all game.”
Pascagoula wasn’t able to do much with the ensuing possession, but a good punt pinned the Tigers at their own 13-yard-line with 6:04 to play in the game.
The Tigers were able to convert a fourth down on a 14-yard pass from Vance to Barnes, but on fourth-and-1 from the Panther 39, Vance was stopped for a 2-yard loss, and that was the ball game.
“We talk every week how it comes down to six plays on offense and defense,” said Sims. “You may play 120 plays, but six of them count, and tonight we made the one play that counted, and our defense kept standing up in important situations.”
The Maroon Tide demolished Pascagoula in the regular-season meeting 51-14 on October 6, and Sims relishes the chance to turn the tables on the two-time state champs in the old Class 5A.
“They beat the heck out of us the first time we played,” said Sims. “Picayune’s a great program, great tradition. We’ve played them now for years and years. We know it’s a challenge going over there. We’re going to enjoy this for about 24 hours, then get ready for next week.”