HATTIESBURG — Everyone and their mother counted out the Starkville Yellowjackets.
After all, they were 0-3 in Region play after a 24-17 loss to Tupelo on Oct. 7, and even the playoffs seemed a million miles away.
But that just made Saturday night all the more special.
The Yellowjackets jumped all over South Champion Brandon en route to a 48-32 blowout to clinch their eighth win in a row and the 2022 MHSAA Class 6A State Championship.
“This feels good,” Starkville coach Chris Jones said. “But it’s all about these kids. They never gave up. We’ve been in playoff mode for a while. Hats off to them — we finished the right way and I’m proud of them.”
The state title is the seventh for the Jackets (12-3) and first since 2015.
They won Saturday night with the same recipe they won the previous seven win-or-go-home games — stifling defense and excellent play from quarterback Trey Petty.
Petty was phenomenal. The junior completed 13 of his 19 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns and rushed 23 times for 62 yards and three more scores.
Starkville scored touchdowns on seven of its 10 possessions, and perhaps more importantly, four of its first six. That, combined with the defense turning Brandon away on the Bulldogs' first five drives, allowed the Jackets to build a seemingly insurmountable lead.
Petty capped a 47-yard drive with a one-yard run to give Starkville the 7-0 lead in the first quarter, then hit Stonka Burnside for a 22-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring in the second.
He landed another big blow with another one-yard touchdown dive to cap a 10-play, 47-yard drive to put the Jackets ahead 21-0 with 19 seconds left in the half.
“My plan was to come play my butt off tonight,” Petty said. “The offensive line played great, the receivers helped me make plays, and the defense made stops early in the game. We put the cherry on top.”
Brandon cut into the lead with a 38-yard field goal off the foot of Will Elliott after a defensive penalty gave Brandon an untimed down to end the half.
But the damage was done — the Bulldogs had just 140 yards and six first downs in the first half, numbers the Bulldogs (12-2) routinely reached in the first quarter of most games this season.
“I think we were just off tonight,” Brandon coach Sam Williams said. “I think we were ready to play. We’d been on this stage before. We just couldn’t get it going. Seemed like every time we made a play in the first half, we had a penalty. Kind of the same thing in the second half. Just one of those nights.”
Starkville stretched its lead to 28-3 just 49 seconds into the second half, driving 65 yards in three plays and scoring on Petty’s third touchdown run of the night, this one from two yards out.
The Bulldogs finally found the end zone with 7:31 left in the third quarter, when star tailback Nate Blount powered his way into the end zone from seven yards out to cap a 67-yard drive and trim the Starkville lead to 28-10.
The Brandon defense kept up the momentum, forcing its first punt of the ballgame on Starkville’s ensuing possession.
The Bulldogs drove down into Starkville territory too, but Yellowjacket two-way star Jaylon York ripped the ball right out of Blount’s hands at the end of a 25-yard run. He returned it 85 yards for a touchdown, but a penalty brought it back.
“I saw my guys had him held up,” York said. “So I just went for the ball. I wish the return hadn’t been called back for a block in the back, but the turnover was huge anyway. It swung the momentum back to us and we never gave it back.”
Ten plays later, Petty hit York for a 12-yard touchdown pass to put Starkville ahead 35-10.
Yellowjacket tailback Courtland Cooper added fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 12 and 16 yards, and Starkville ended up needing them. Brandon rallied for 22 points in the fourth quarter, scoring on a pair of touchdown passes from Landon Varnes to Lester Miller and a one-yard run from Blount to pull within two scores with 1:59 left in the game.
But Starkville recovered two of the Bulldogs’ three on-side kick attempts in the fourth quarter, and that was enough. When Varnes' final pass fell incomplete as time expired, Starkville rushed the field, gave Jones the ice bath and got the celebration going.
Jones was all smiles as he watched Petty accept the MVP honors.
“He’s a dog,” Jones said. “I’m happy he’s on my team. He does a good job, and has been doing a good job all year. He had a rough patch early in the year when he was struggling and playing through injuries, but he bounced back. That’s what champions do.”
Burnside finished the night with four catches for 114 yards and the one touchdown. Curtis Willis led the Jackets in rushing with 14 carries for 85 yards.
The loss in the championship round was the second in as many years for Brandon. The Bulldogs actually wound up with more total offense than Starkville, out-gaining the Jackets 508 yards to 444.
Varnes passed for 297 yards and two touchdowns, and Blount finished with 180 rushing yards on 24 carries. But the Bulldogs dropped two touchdown passes in the first half, converted just one of 10 third-down chances and committed 11 penalties for 105 yards.
“We just didn’t do enough tonight,” Williams said. “We weren’t very crisp on offense and couldn’t get off the field on defense, but that’s life. I was proud of our kids for the way they kept fighting. We never gave up, and you could see it in their body language all the way to the end.”