By Reid Bankston
As the season progresses, one thing Blue Devil fans have been able to bank on is the Water Valley defense coming up with timely turnovers. Friday night was no different, as Water Valley forced four West Tallahatchie turnovers en route to a 20-16 win over the Choctaws.
Water Valley opened their homecoming encounter against West Tallahatchie with an authoritative 11-play, 77-yard touchdown drive, capped off by a four yard touchdown run by sophomore Torrey Horton, putting the Blue Devils ahead 7-0 with 6:37 remaining in the first quarter. Horton’s touchdown run was set up by five Eric Buckley carries, including a 32 yarder on third and two, and an 18-yard Leo Daniels reception.
On the ensuing kickoff, Water Valley had another costly special team’s error, as West Tallahatchie’s Jarvis Pigue broke free for a 92 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. A two point conversion run by Henry Hampton put the Choctaws ahead 8-7.
“We had some guys that looked like that just didn’t stay in their lanes,” said Water Valley head coach Brad Embry. “He (Pigue) is a good athlete, and he made a heck of a play.”
The Water Valley offense was forced into a quick three and out on their next possession, while West Tallahatchie embarked on a 10-play drive, but the Blue Devil defense stood strong, stopping the Choctaws on fourth and eight.
The Blue Devil offense, again led by junior quarterback Josh Johnson, harnessed the momentum gained by the Water Valley defense, scoring on a six-play, 60-yard drive. Sophomore J.D. Fondon set up the Blue Devils with a 54-yard run, before Johnson found the end zone on a fourth and one quarterback sneak, putting Water Valley ahead 14-8 with 8:45 remaining in the second quarter.
West Tallahatchie looked set to respond, with the running back duo of Henry Willis and Walter Davis leading the Choctaws down to the Blue Devil 16. However, the resilient and opportunistic Water Valley defense came up with yet another big turnover, as freshman cornerback Chris Conard, helped out by a Daniels block at midfield, returned a West Tallahatchie fumble 84 yards for a touchdown. After a missed extra point by senior J.J. Woodard, the Blue Devil lead stood at 20-8 with 2:09 remaining before halftime.
“Our defense played great, they hawked the ball. Every time you looked, there were 10 guys around that football or 11. They’re chasing the football and I’m proud of them,” said Embry.
West Tallahatchie had an attempt to cut into the Blue Devil defense cut short with 6.6 seconds remaining in the first half, as sophomore cornerback Tavi Toles intercepted a Pigue pass inside the Water Valley 20 yard line.
The Choctaws opened the second half continuing their strong running game, as Willis and Davis again led West Tallahatchie into the Blue Devil red zone. However, like their first two trips, West Tallahatchie turned the ball over, as Buckley recovered the Choctaws fumble on the Blue Devil four yard line.
The Water Valley offense was forced into a three and out, as West Tallahatchie took over on their next possession on their own 45-yard line. A 16-yard Hampton run took the Choctaws inside Blue Devil territory, but the Blue Devils stopped West Tallahatchie on a fourth and six attempt, turning the ball over to the Blue Devils with 5:39 remaining in the third quarter.
A 25-yard Horton run put the Blue Devils in West Tallahatchie territory, as Water Valley looked to put the game beyond reach. However, the next play saw the Choctaws’ Denarrius Morris take a Water Valley fumble 59 yards for a touchdown. Davis converted the two point conversion, pulling West Tallahatchie to within four points at 20-16 with 5:19 remaining in the third quarter.
Water Valley turned the ball over on downs on their next possession, as a Johnson pass fell incomplete with 1:53 remaining in the third quarter, giving the Choctaws possession at their 29 yard line. Led by Willis, Davis, and Hampton, West Tallahatchie moved the ball to the Water Valley 46 yard line. However, that was as far as the Choctaws would get, as Buckley, the defensive MVP on the night, forced a Willis fumble with an explosive touchdown saving collision in the open field.
Buckley, who filled in for injured starter D.C. Logan, earned his praise from defensive coordinator Richard Russo after his solid eight tackles, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery performance Friday night.
“Eric has played the last seven quarters on defense, and there hasn’t been a drop off,” said Russo.
The Choctaws forced a Blue Devil punt on the next possession, giving West Tallahatchie their last opportunity to overtake the lead from Water Valley. After two runs by Willis set up a third and one on the West Tallahatchie 35 yard line, Water Valley’s defense came up with their biggest stand of the season. On back to back running plays, Fondon, along with the help of defensive linemen Woodard, Marrico Hayes, and Zac Caulder, held the Choctaws to no gain, securing the win for the Blue Devils with 5:15 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“We (Defense) talk about being a crew, putting our hard hats on and going to work,” said Russo. “We finally got that defensive shutout we’ve been looking for. They scored 16 points against our offense and special teams, but it was a good team win Friday night.”
The Blue Devils wrapped up their first home win of the season behind the running of Horton, and an 18 yard reception by Corey Carr. Johnson gained the final first down of the night on a three yard run with 1:02 left in the game, allowing Water Valley run out the clock.
“I’m just proud of them. That’s a group of kids that came in here and got after it and I’m so proud of everything they’ve done. They’ve come to work and they’re hungry to win and it paid off,” said Embry. “If you’ve been to all of our games, you can tell we can do it… all the work is paying off and we’re ready to head into division play.”
No Logan, No Problem
Standout running back/safety D.C. Logan was ruled out of Friday night’s match up with a shoulder injury, causing some concern for the Blue Devils. However, those concerns and doubts were quickly erased by the excellent play of the sophomore duo of Buckley and Horton. Along with Fondon, the Water Valley ground attack yielded 219 yards on the night, pacing the Blue Devils to physical homecoming victory against West Tallahatchie.
“Two pretty good tenth graders right there (Horton and Buckley), they’re coming along and they work hard. From the spring until now, they’re much better just because of the time they spend in the weight room,” said Embry. “I’m excited for young guys to step up in a game like this when there are a lot of shots being fired. It was a physical football game and they stepped up and played ball.”
While it was the ground attack that continued to lead the way for the Blue Devils, the positive progression from Johnson, along with the improvement of Daniels, Carr, and Tank Hervey at receiver, has really provided the Water Valley offense with another dimension. Johnson went six-for-eight for 76 yards with no interceptions against West Tallahatchie, marking significant improvement in the junior’s accuracy in just his second career start.
“He’s (Josh Johnson) going to be fine, he’s still learning the position, but he makes some plays. He’s a good athlete and he makes some plays and from here on out, I expect him to keep doing that. He’ll get better and more comfortable in what he’s doing in our offense and he’ll be fine,” said Embry.
Along with Johnson, Embry is pleased with the performance of his wide receivers, but the first year coach doesn’t expect the improvement to stop heading into division play.
“They’re (receivers) learning the offense. A passing game takes a while, and these guys aren’t used to throwing the ball around,” said Embry. “The ball has to be thrown at the right time and then you have to have protection along with that. It’s coming around, I think it’s getting better every week and I think it’ll improve from here on out.”