Photo: Hokes Bluff’s Braydon Hill catches a pass during the Eagles’ 33-13 victory over North Jackson in the second round of the Class 4A state football playoffs last Friday (Nov. 16) in Stevenson. (Alex Chaney)
By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
From the opening kickoff, Class 4A No. 3 Hokes Bluff sent a loud, thunderous message to fifth-ranked North Jackson last Friday (Nov. 16).
Eagle linebacker Will Clemons delivered a vicious hit to running back Korre Smith, and there were plenty more hits just like it throughout the game as Hokes Bluff stormed past previously unbeaten North Jackson 33-13 in the second round of the 4A state playoffs at R.D. Hicks Stadium in Stevenson.
Hokes Bluff (11-1) advances to the state quarterfinals for the third consecutive season, hosting Deshler at Mike Robertson Stadium on Friday, Nov. 23.
The Chiefs (11-1) entered the contest averaging over a state-best 60 points per game. But Hokes Bluff held them to only 13 points and the Eagles made several stops on fourth down throughout the game.
“I think we shocked them a little bit,” said Hokes Bluff head coach Mike Robertson. “I think they knew we had a good team. I’m proud of the guys. We thought we were going to win. Holding them to 13 (points) – our assistant coaches did a great job. We have a good secondary, and that helps us, and I think our other players have gotten better.”
On the opening drive of the game, North Jackson methodically marched down the field on a 19-play drive that took up almost the entire first quarter. Facing a fourth-and-goal from the Hokes Bluff 2-yard line, Chiefs running back Lee Witherspoon was tackled for a five-yard loss by Hokes Bluff safety Ashton Gulledge, and the Eagles took over on their own 7.
Hokes Bluff’s opening drive featured a heavy dosage of Darrian Meads. The junior running back had runs of 23 and 19 yards on the drive and capped it off with a 5-yard touchdown with 11:20 remaining in the second quarter to give the Eagles a 7-0 advantage.
North Jackson moved the ball into the red zone on its next drive but was stopped short on another fourth-and-two from the Eagle 11. Witherspoon, who entered the game with a state-record 59 touchdowns on the season, was injured on the previous third down play and did not return to the game.
Hokes Bluff had an opportunity to take a two-score lead, but a holding penalty stalled the drive and gave the Chief offense an opportunity before halftime.
North Jackson entered the game having thrown the ball only 13 times all season, but the Chiefs moved the ball effectively through the air in the final minutes of the first half.
Quarterback Tanner Woodall threw a screen pass to Smith that went for 27 yards and later connected with receiver Andrew Darnell for a 22-yard gain to move the ball to the Hokes Bluff 1-yard line. Woodall punched the ball in for a touchdown on a quarterback sneak to close the gap to 7-6 with 28 seconds before halftime. On the extra point attempt, Hokes Bluff’s Jack Busch and Carson Elder broke through the line of scrimmage and blocked the kick.
After forcing a stop on the first drive of the second half, the Chiefs had a chance to take the lead early in the third quarter. Facing another fourth down and short, North Jackson coach Mark Rose opted to go for it in the Chiefs’ own territory. The Eagle defense stood tall yet again, however, and Hokes Bluff took over in plus-territory.
On the fourth play of the ensuing drive, Meads bounced off three defenders and bulled his way into the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown run to give the Eagles a 14-6 advantage.
After the teams exchanged punts for the remainder of the quarter, Hokes Bluff had an opportunity to put the game away early in the fourth as the Eagles moved the ball deep into North Jackson territory. A fumbled exchange on a toss sweep resulted in a turnover, however, and the Chiefs took over on their own 25-yard line with new life with just over 11 minutes remaining in the game.
With the Chiefs facing a third-and-12 on their own 46-yard line, Woodall dropped back to pass and threw the ball into the flat. Meads jumped the route, intercepted the pass and sprinted 51 yards for his third touchdown of the night as Hokes Bluff took a two-score lead with just over nine minutes remaining in the game. A two-point conversion attempt failed, and the Eagles led 20-6.
The Chiefs fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and started their next drive on their own 5-yard line. Nevertheless, Smith took a direct snap and darted around the left sideline for a 95-yard score to close the gap to 20-13 with 8:53 left in the game.
North Jackson forced a three-and-out on Hokes Bluff’s next possession, and the Eagles punted the ball away. However, the Chiefs muffed the punt and the Eagles’ Carson Eubanks recovered the ball in North Jackson territory. Four plays later, Gulledge found Braydon Hill in the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown to give the Eagles a 27-13 lead 4:05 remaining in the game.
Any chance of a comeback ended on the following kickoff, as the Chiefs fumbled the ball and Clemons recovered on the North Jackson 10. Meads put the exclamation mark on the game as he scored on a 10-yard run on the following play to give the Eagles a 33-13 advantage. Hill intercepted a pass to end the game for the Eagles.
Robertson said keeping the Chiefs out of the end zone on the opening drive of the game was pivotal, and answering that long drive with a score helped set the tone for the game.
“I asked the (assistant) coaches how many possessions we needed to limit (North Jackson) to per half, and Brian (Sexton) said four,” Robertson said. “I said that would be hard to do, and we only had the ball twice in the first half. The second possession we got a holding penalty that cost us the drive.
“They ended up scoring before the half, and we’ve done that now three times in big game this year. In the second half, we got them wanting to throw the ball. (Woodall) is good, and the receivers are good. The screens gave us trouble.”
Robertson said the Eagle offensive line was a difference maker and that he was impressed with his team’s physicality on both sides of the ball.
“Our offensive line is really physical now up front,” he said. “If you can get Darrian through, he’s going to make someone miss.”
Meads finished with 180 yards on 26 carries, and he scored four times on the night, including his pick-six in the second half.
“It feels good,” Meads said. “We worked really hard for this win. North Jackson is a really good team, so beating them means everything to us. We want to pick up where we left off last year (in the quarterfinals) since we got beat, and we want to work hard like we always do and do what Hokes Bluff does.”
Gulledge was 2-for-3 for 38 yards and a touchdown, with both completions going to Hill. The Chiefs actually outgained the Eagles 322 to 250 but lost the turnover battle by a 4-1 margin and struggled in the red zone.
Witherspoon carried the ball 17 times for 76 yards before leaving the game with an injury. Smith rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown on only six carries, while Woodall threw for 101 yards and two interceptions.
Clemons and Jackson Fielding each had nine tackles, followed by Hill with seven, Elder with six and Gulledge with five. Clemons also had a sack.