COLUMBIA — It was fitting that a championship-level clash between two heavyweight programs should come down to the last play of the game.
And it was Columbia that made that play, a touchdown pass with four seconds left on the clock that propelled the Wildcats to a thrilling 28-21 victory over Poplarville in the Class 4A South State championship game at Walter Payton Field.
Columbia remained undefeated at 14-0 and will play for the 4A state title at noon Dec. 2 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford against defending champion Louisville. Poplarville finished its season 10-4.
“They left it all out on the field tonight,” said Poplarville coach Jay Beech. “Through injury, sickness, man, as a coach you’ve got to walk away from this game feeling real proud of your kids, very happy about their performance.”
The Wildcats won it on a 13-yard pass from junior Collin Haney to senior Naji Cain after senior Amarion Fortenberry picked off a pass with 39 seconds left, giving Columbia the ball at the Poplarville 31.
It was a disappointing end to a superior effort for Poplarville, which rallied from a 14-point deficit in the second half to pull even in the fourth quarter.
The Hornets started out doing what they wanted offensively, controlling the ball and eating up the clock. Poplarville used up almost half of the first quarter on its first possession but ultimately had to punt.
However, the Hornets got the ball right back when senior Lawrence Jamison picked a pass to stop the Wildcats in Poplarville territory.
“They have some pretty good D-1 receivers,” said Jamison. “But, you know, D-1s, stars, it means nothing to us. It’s all about competitiveness and being as tough as they are.
“They came out on top tonight, but it was a hard-fought battle. I’m proud of my guys. They fought to the very last whistle, it just wasn’t the outcome we wanted.”
The Wildcats returned the favor, though, as senior Jeremiah Foxworth swiped a pass at the Hornet 15 and motor down the sideline for what appeared to be an 85-yard pick-six.
However, Columbia was called for a block in the back, and the ball was placed at the Wildcat 40. No matter, as the Wildcats drove for a touchdown anyway, covering the 60 yard in nine plays, with Fortenberry scoring on a 32-yard scamper off right guard.
“I wish I could take away some of the things I did,” said Beech. “But as far as the kids go, they laid it all out on the line.”
Poplarville responded with a scoring drive of its own, moving 74 yards on 11 plays. The Hornets settled for a field goal after being stopped at the Wildcat 9, but Columbia was flagged for roughing the kicker, and Beech elected to take the three points off the scoreboard.
Senior Lane Amacker made that decision pay off on the next play, dashing over left tackle for a 4-yard touchdown to tie the game 7-7 with 1:52 left in the first half. Amacker led the Hornets with 84 yards on 12 carries.
“They were playing one extra player on right side of the field, so we were trying to get the ball away from that side,” said Amacker. “Really, the game plan was just to run as hard as we could all night, go toe-to-toe with them and see what they’ve got.”
Columbia showed its big-play ability on the ensuing possession, moving 64 yard on just six plays. Haney converted passes of 17 yards to junior A.J. Lewis and 34 yards for Foxworth before Fortenberry got the score on an 8-yard run with 28 seconds left on the half.
Columbia appeared poised to take command in the third quarter, driving 46 yards on five plays, with sophomore Tra Lewis scoring on a 9-yard run, giving the Wildcats a 21-7 lead with 3:39 left in the third quarter.
But Jamison responded with the play of the game for Poplarville, taking the ensuing kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown.
“We practice our returns every week, week in and week out,” said Jamison. “We try to perfect them at every point of the game. I saw the crease and had nothing but green grass. I ran it like it was a 40 and went full speed until I got to the end zone.”
Sufficiently aroused, the Hornets got a three-and-out for the only time all night, and got the ball back at their own 45 after a short punt.
Poplarville used a 24-yard pass from junior Sidney Blackmon to Amacker to the Wildcat 12, and Blackmon got the score on fourth down with a 3-yard run, tying it up 21-21 with 8:33 to play.
Columbia took a page out of Poplarville’s playbook with the next possession, using up more than six minutes and driving as far as the Hornet 7 before a holding call and a procedure penalty moved the Wildcats back to the 20 yard-line.
On third-and-goal, Haney’s pass was knocked away by Jamison, then senior Landon Reinike swatted away the fourth-down pass.
With 2:09 on the clock, the Hornets had time to drive down the field, but they were without freshman tailback Tylan Keys, who suffered an injury in the second half and did not play in the fourth quarter. He was held to 49 yards on 16 carries.
Poplarville tried the same pass play to Amacker that had worked earlier, but this time Fortenberry read it and picked off the pass at the Hornet 46 and returned the theft to the Hornet 31.
“Their safeties and their secondary are so active in the run game, that if you don’t throw the ball on them, they’ll come out and stuff you,” said Beech. “So we needed to take some shots to back them off and help our run game.
“We had confidence in our quarterback, he’s played great for us all year and he made some good throws. I wish I could take that last one back and just get to overtime. But you’ve got to take some risks against a defense as good as Columbia’s.”
The Hornets got a sack for a 7-yard loss, but Haney and Foxworth hooked up for a 25-yard pickup to the 13 with 14 seconds on the clock.
The Hornets knocked away the first pass, but Cain got behind the secondary on the next play, and Haney put the ball right on the money for the score.
Despite the loss, Beech was pleased with the way the season went overall, and he likes what he has coming back next year.
“We’re happy about the direction we’re headed,” Beech said. “Absolutely, we’re feeling great about the next few years.”