TUPELO — After losing in the North State Final a year ago, Starkville coach Chris Jones said his Yellowjackets were determined not to get shoved around if they made it back in 2022.
And when the chips were down Friday night in a shootout with Tupelo, it was the Jackets that did the pushing.
Starkville scored two touchdowns in the final seven minutes to win 41-32, handing the Golden Wave their first loss of the season and punching a ticket to the 2022 MHSAA 6A State Championship.
The Yellowjackets (11-3) will face the Brandon Bulldogs (12-1) for the state title at 7 p.m. next Friday night.
It’s a remarkable comeback after starting 0-3 in Region 2-6A games. Friday’s win was their seventh in a row since that three-game drought back in September.
“The kids, they fought their butts off,” Starkville coach Chris Jones said. “It’s been that kind of year. We had our struggles, but I think all the adversity we faced, it prepared us for this moment.”
And what a moment it was.
The Yellowjackets came out with their hair on fire and took a an early lead Friday night. They forced a fumble on Tupelo’s opening drive, then proceeded to score on touchdown drives of 63, 83 and 92 yards on their first three possessions to go ahead 20-0.
It was a dog-fight after that. Tupelo’s splendid quarterback Jeremiah Harrell hit on a 59-yard touchdown pass to K.D. Gibson, then connected with JQ Witherspoon for a 75-yard pass to set up another score.
When Quay Middlebrooks punched it in from the one two plays later, Starkville’s lead had dwindled to 20-13.
Tupelo trimmed it to 20-19 on their first drive of the second half. After the Golden Wave got a stop, Harrell connected with Gibson again for a 40-yard touchdown strike.
The Starkville offense continued to sputter, turning the ball over on a fumble and punting on back-to-back possessions before Tupelo finally took the lead.
Middlebrooks got free around the right side and raced 33 yards for a touchdown to give the Golden Wave the 25-20 advantage.
It really looked like the Jackets were cooked when they had to punt it away again with 9:10 left, but punter Ethan Pulliam boomed a punt 65-yard punt that pinned the Golden Wave deep at their own 10-yard line.
That’s when Ny Jadus Holloway made the play of the game. He got a paw on a short pass from Harrell, tipped it straight up in the air and caught his own deflection to set Starkville up with a first down at the Tupelo 13.
“I was watching the quarterback,” Holloway said. “They had just hit us with that RPO play, and it was the same thing. I just jumped it and got the interception.”
The Jackets cashed in the golden opportunity two plays later with a 10-yard pass from Petty to Stonka Burnside to retake the lead 28-25.
The celebration was short-lived, though. Tupelo answered right back with an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Middlebrooks finished it with a three-yard dive to give the Wave a 32-28 lead with 6:35 to go.
But Starkville wasn’t done — the Jackets marched 80 yards in six plays, with the big play coming on a 35-yard touchdown pass to Jaylon York. After the extra point, the Jackets held a 35-32.
When the Jackets defense forced a three-and-out on Tupelo’s ensuing possession, Petty delivered the knockout blow with a 38-yard touchdown run to put Starkville ahead 41-32 with 1:19 left.