By Reid Bankston
In what could prove to be Water Valley’s biggest game in nearly two years, the Blue Devils, clinched their playoff spot with an impressive 35-21 senior night victory against fellow playoff contender J.Z. George.
Behind a punishing defense and another stellar performance from running back D.C. Logan, Water Valley pulled away from the Jaguars after a hotly contested first half, as Brad Embry’s squad kept J.Z. George off the scoreboard after halftime.
“The guys were resilient; they’re smart enough to see the improvement they’ve made. Sometimes you make an improvement and we didn’t win last week, but we played four quarters tonight instead of a half, and that’s what we’ve been working for,” said Water Valley Head Coach Brad Embry.
Water Valley struggled with offensive efficiency early in Friday night’s critical division encounter, as J.Z. George took an early 6-0 behind a methodical passing attack led by quarterback Raphael Jones. The Jaguars capped off their opening eight-play, 58-yard drive with a three-yard touchdown run from Michael Crawford.
The Blue Devils took advantage of an early J.Z. George mistake, as a Josh Johnson punt was fumbled and returned at the Jaguar 33-yard line. After struggling to push towards the end zone, Johnson connected with senior wide receiver Tank Hervey on fourth-and-eight for an 18-yard touchdown pass, giving the Blue Devils a 7-6 lead with 25 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
“I’ve been waiting for it all year, he (Hervey) ran his routes well and Josh got him the ball,” said receivers/safeties coach Shane Brown. Hervey saved his best performance for possibly his final home game, as the senior hauled in three passes for 79 yards and a touchdown.
Water Valley created more luck for themselves on the next J.Z. George possession, as junior Leo Daniels, a multi-faceted performer this season, picked off Jones at the Blue Devil 25-yard line with 11:52 left in the second quarter.
It only took Embry’s bunch four plays to punish Jones’ mistake, as Logan extended the Blue Devil lead to 14-6 with a 42-yard touchdown run with 10:32 left before the half.
Although it looked as if Water Valley were going to pull away on senior night, the Jaguars were determined to make a fight of this division showdown. Led by Jones, J.Z. George leveled the score with a seven-play, 65-yard drive. The Jaguar signal caller went three-for-four on the drive for 58 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown strike to Joe Johnson. Jones tied the game at 14-14 with a successful two point conversion scramble with 8:29 left in the second quarter.
Logan and sophomore standout fullback/linebacker J.D. Fondon continued the Blue Devil rushing attack on the ensuing drive, as the backfield duo combined for 38 yards on nine carries, including Logan’s second touchdown run on the night, this time from five yards out. However, Johnson’s extra point was blocked, as Water Valley took a 20-14 advantage with 3:02 left in the first half.
The Blue Devil defense continued to struggle with Jones and the Jaguar passing attack on the next possession, as J.Z. George needed only five plays, capped off by a 22-yard touchdown reception by T.J. Hudson, to take a 21-20 advantage into halftime.
Although J.Z. George enjoyed great success in the first half, the Blue Devils clearly dominated the second half.
“Coach Russo did a great job at halftime making adjustments,” said Embry. “ He’s consistent and does great with the defense and those guys play hard for him.”
Water Valley forced a quick Jaguar three-and-out to open the second half, as the Blue Devil senior-laden defensive front begin to assert tremendous pressure on Jones. Logan added to his strongest performance of the year on Water Valley’s opening second half possession, as a 54-yard completion from Johnson to Hervey set up his third touchdown of the night, as the junior scampered in from 24-yards out with 9:04 remaining in the third quarter. Johnson connected with freshman receiver/cornerback Chris Connard on the two point conversion, giving Water Valley a 28-21 lead.
“The line blocked, the receivers blocked, and the holes were there,” said Logan. “I just played for the seniors tonight.”
Logan capped off his night with a 35-yard touchdown run with 1:28 left in the third quarter, giving the Blue Devils their final margin of victory at 35-21. J.Z. George had no answer for a dominating performance by the Blue Devil offensive line, as Logan finished with 280 yards on 33 carries, accounting for four touchdowns en route to his strongest performance to date for Water Valley.
The Blue Devil defense crushed any hopes of a Jaguar comeback as a relentless pass rush delivered several hits and allowed little time for Jones and the J.Z George offense to muster any momentum.
“This was it, this was the playoffs tonight. This was a must win for the playoffs and the kids knew that and they played like it was,” said Embry. “We’ve got to go into the playoffs and continue to improve on playing four quarters.”
A Victory in the Trenches
During preseason practice, offensive line/tight end coach Clint Faust knew his unit would have to pave the way if Water Valley were to enjoy a turnaround year in Embry’s debut season. And after Friday night’s performance, you couldn’t wipe the smile off Faust’s face, as his offense, led by senior offensive linemen Tyler Jones and Ryan Bain, dominated a bewildered J.Z. George defense.
“On both the offensive and defensive line, we played our best game tonight no doubt,” said Faust. “I think we’re real close, we’ve got a couple of things to work out, but we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. We’re going to be an underdog wherever we go but that’s alright, we like playing that role.”
Water Valley recorded 15 first downs and accounted for 410 yards of total offense, as the Blue Devils simply could not be stopped on senior night.
“They (offensive line) got better as the game went on. Everybody they got can run and it took us a little bit to get adjusted to the speed of the game,” said Embry. “They got it figured out, the offense played well, and the defense did great, I’m so proud of them.”
While the Water Valley offense enjoyed free reign throughout the game, the Blue Devil defense sealed the win with a second half shutout.
“Our front seven played their best four quarters of football all year,” said defensive coordinator Richard Russo. “We made them one dimensional and we were able to run a lot of packages with Dewayne (Samuel) and Malcom (Horton).”
Along with Samuel and Horton, fellow seniors J.J. Woodard and Xavier Benson kept Jones scrambling throughout the night. Marrico Hayes and Horton both recorded second half sacks, and the defensive trio of Woodard, Fondon, and sophomore safety Eric Buckley combined for 26 tackles.
“I’m really proud of the kids, especially those seniors. I want them to go out with a good year and I’m proud of them. This staff has worked hard and I’m talking hard. We’ve got some young kids and we’re still learning and I’m just proud of them, we’re making good strides,” said defensive line coach Bryant Mix. “Marrico Hayes, Barrett Larson, Xavier Benson, Malcolm Horton, and J.J. Woodard played their tails off and I’m proud of them. I love them and I’m going to miss them big time.”