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MHSAA 6A North Championship: Starkville at Tupelo at a glance

Here's an in-depth look at both teams, how they got here and what they must do to advance to the state championship in Hattiesburg

JACKSON — We're down to four teams remaining in each of the six classes in the 2022 MHSAA Football Playoffs, and there are some fantastic football games slated for this weekend.

Here's an in-depth look at the 6A North matchup between Starkville and Tupelo.

Starkville Yellowjackets

  • Record: 10-3
  • Head coach: Chris Jones (6th year, 65-16)
  • Key players: QB Trey Petty, WR Braylon Burnside, DL Eric Thomas, LB Ny’jadus Roberts-Holloway

2022 synopsis: The season started with so much promise for the Yellowjackets. They whipped Columbus, West Point and Olive Branch in their first three games, but ran into trouble in that fourth non-region game against a physical Louisville team that’s still alive in the 4A North Championship this weekend.

The Jackets left Louisville with a 21-20 win, but also a slew of injuries. Forced to rest a slew of starters, Starkville dropped its next three games. Madison Central beat the Jackets handily, 41-21, but Starkville showed some fight in one-score losses to Clinton and Tupelo.

Still, they were 0-3 in Region 2-6A.

They got back on track with a 49-13 win over Murrah on Oct. 13, and they’ve been rolling ever since. They beat Oxford 47-28 in the Little Egg Bowl and closed out the region slate with wins over Germantown and Grenada to slip into the playoffs as the four-seed.

The opening-round 38-12 playoff win over top-seeded Southaven and the second-round 30-2 romp over Clinton last week were statement wins.

Scouting the Jackets: Starkville is arguably the most talented of the four teams taking the field this weekend in 6A football.

They have a SEC-caliber quarterback in Trey Petty, who has passed for 2,341 yards with 26 touchdowns and seven interceptions and averaged five yards on 119 carries with a team-high 11 rushing touchdowns.

Safety Curtis Willis moved to tailback after injuries ravaged the backfield, and he comes into Friday night averaging 6.3 yards a carry. Receivers Braylon Burnside and Jaylon York have combined for 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Defensively, the Jackets are always in the backfield. Eric Thomas, Tony Lucious and Ny’jadus Roberts-Holloway all have 30 or more stops behind the line. Junior linebacker Jermar McCarter is a budding superstar with 71 tackles, and Will Wells and Jejuan Davis lead a capable secondary.

Key to success: Defensively, the Jackets need to seek as many third-and-long situations as possible. Tupelo is more than capable of converting short-yardage situations, and keeping them off-schedule has to be right up there with forcing turnovers in terms of importance.

Offensively, Starkville has an advantage pretty much across the board at the skill positions, so it’s all about blocking. The Jackets found out the hard way last season that the team that’s more physical up front usually wins at this point in the season.

Last year, it was Madison Central that bullying Starkville around in North State. This year, the Jackets are hoping to be the team doing the pushing.

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Coach says: “I think the loss to Madison in North State last year had a huge effect on us all season,” Jones said. “It was motivation. We didn’t seize the moment, but a lot of those kids were back, and the only thing you can do is get back to work. Well we worked, and we’re about to come full circle. Now it’s time to take advantage of the opportunity.”

More: Full 2022 MHSAA Class 6A Football Playoff Bracket

Tupelo Golden Wave

  • Record: 12-0
  • Head coach: Ty Hardin (3rd season, 26-9)
  • Key players: QB Jeremiah Harrell, RB Quay Middlebrooks, OL Zay Alexander, LB Tristan Jernigan

2022 synopsis: As long as we’re being honest here, pretty much everyone slept on Tupelo early in the season. Sure, the Golden Wave opened the season ranked in the SB Live Power 10 (at No. 7), but the early part of the schedule wasn’t anything to write home about.

The Golden Wave certainly dominated, but wins against Horn Lake, Lafayette, Saltillo and Corinth weren’t convincing anyone of anything.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 35-0 win over Oxford in Week 7 that the pollsters truly started to take notice. After dispatching Starkville 24-17 the following week, they steamrolled through the last four games of the regular season.

They trounced Lewisburg 42-0 in the first round of the playoffs, and sent Madison Central home with a 28-7 loss in the second round last Friday night.

Scouting the Wave: Tupelo is big and physical up front on both sides of the ball, and that’s usually a recipe for success in this stage of the playoffs.

The big offensive line, led by Alabama-Mississippi all-star Zay Alexander, has paved the way for an offense that averages nearly 140 yards on the ground and 200 through the air in 12 games.

Quarterback Jeremiah Harrell was a 6A Mr. Football finalist who has been efficient, completing roughly 64 percent of his passes for 2,517 yards and 34 touchdowns against just four interceptions.

Quay Middlebrooks leads an offensive rushing attack that averages north of five yards per carry, and KD Gibson leads a capable group of receivers who can score from anywhere on the field.

Defensively, Tristan Jernigan leads a surprisingly athletic group of linebackers that serve as a core of a defense that has given up just one touchdown at home all season.

Key to success: The recipe to beat Starkville is the same as it was in the first meeting, but with a few additional wrinkles.

On defense, that means playing good in coverage and containing Starkville quarterback Trey Petty. The Wave defense did a number on backup quarterback Jaylon Ruffin in the first meeting, holding him to 130 yards on 12 completions and sacking him four times. Petty is a different animal, and they’ll have to maintain their gaps, find a way to get pressure and keep him in the pocket, all at the same time.

Offensively, the Wave needs to hit a couple of deep passes that they dropped in the first meeting and pepper the Starkville defensive front with a heavy dose of Middlebrooks.

Coach says: “They didn’t have their quarterback in our first meeting, and we didn’t play particularly well down there, either,” Hardin said. “So we’re looking at this week’s game as a matchup between two completely different teams. We’ve got to do a lot of things right: win at the line of scrimmage, control the gaps and hit some big plays when we get the opportunities.”