By Reid Bankston
Heading into their first road trip of the season, Water Valley head coach Brad Embry knew his squad would have to earn everything they got.
If miserable playing conditions and stiff opposition weren’t enough for the youthful Blue Devils to overcome, Water Valley was without several starters, including star running back D.C. Logan, for the duration of the first quarter.
“We talked about being road warriors before the game and taking what you want,” said Embry.
Thanks again to a stingy defense, the self proclaimed “road warriors” were able to grind out a dramatic away victory, squeaking past the J.Z. George Jaguars 21-14 with a Zenty Allen touchdown in the game’s final minutes.
Although Embry couldn’t ask for a better end result, the Blue Devils (2-1) dug themselves an early hole after sophomore C.J. Jackson fumbled the opening kickoff, allowing the Jaguars to take a 6-0 lead with a three-yard run just two plays later.
“In the past, we would’ve tucked tail and been sad and we didn’t do that, and that tells you where we’ve come from,” said Embry.
Logan, who had served his one quarter suspension, gave Water Valley a 14-6 in the second quarter, scoring on back to back J.Z. George turnovers. Logan and .backfield compatriot Allen carried the Blue Devil offense throughout the night with 219 yards, Water Valley totaled 225 as a team.
“We like to be able to run the ball; I think we threw it two or three times tonight,” said Embry. “In a game like this, you play defense and run the clock out and score on the last drive, and that’s what we did.”
Water Valley’s lead was short-lived, as Jaguar running back Antonio Partlow took the ensuing kickoff 85-yards for a touchdown. A successful two-point conversion from J.Z. George quarterback Raphael Jones to Joseph Johnson tied the game at 14-14 with 8:17 left in the second quarter.
Defense was the name of the game for the remaining minutes of the first half and into the second, with the biggest play coming in the form of an interception by Allen at the Water Valley eight-yard line with 6:43 left in the third quarter.
“I was telling them (Water Valley defense) to keep their head up and I told Z-Lo (Allen) this was a big play and the quarterback made a big mistake and the outcome was an interception,” said junior linebacker J.D. Fondon.
Allen’s interception was one of many big plays by a swarming Water Valley defense, as the Blue Devils only conceded 22 yards on the night.
“We overcame some discipline issues and field conditions and really did a good job,” said defensive coordinator Richard Russo. “We had some guys really step up. They did what we asked them to do.”
Although the Blue Devils had gained momentum, the Water Valley offense still sputtered for the rest of the third quarter.
“Tonight you try to plant and make a cut, and you push up a couple of gallons of water and three pounds of mud,” said Embry, referring to the rain-soaked field.
It wasn’t until the third quarter that Water Valley finally put it together on offense, as the Blue Devils embarked on a 10-play, 75-yard game winning drive. J.Z. George proved to be the architects of their own downfall, as a roughing the punter penalty with 9:06 left in the game kept the Blue Devils on the move. Logan and Allen combined to punish the Jaguars throughout the drive, and six plays later, it was the latter who scored from 15 yards out to give Water Valley a decisive 21-14 lead with 5:59 left in the game.
“Learning to play after a win and then you get here and these conditions are what you’re faced with, that’s hard on anybody. It takes a mentally tough team to play like this,” said Embry. “This field will take your legs, its rough conditions, and I told our guys I was more proud of them this week than last week because in the past, we couldn’t play in adverse conditions.”
A Jackson forced fumble ended the Jaguars next drive, but J.Z. George got the ball back with 42.7 seconds to go after Embry put his faith in his defense, kneeing the ball four times before turning it over on downs.
“They (defense) call themselves the wrecking crew and they do a pretty good job of it. That’s what we’re going to do at Water Valley. We’re going to score 21 points and we’re supposed to win,” said Embry.
Embry’s faith was justly rewarded, as Fondon, Water Valley’s defensive stalwart, forced and recovered a fumble with ten seconds to go to seal the Blue Devil victory.
“I saw he (J.Z. George Right Tackle) had slow feet, and Coach Nix always tells me to fly up the field and make your move,” said Fondon. “So when I flew up field, I saw the quarterback and I wrapped him up. I gave it all I could for the last play.”
Fondon finished the game with 13 total tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and plenty of praise from his defensive coordinator.
“J.D. has the respect of the whole team, he commands the defensive huddle,” said Russo.
Water Valley must now turn their attention to another road test, this one coming against a 4-0 North Pontotoc Viking squad. Although the Vikings will be celebrating homecoming, Russo will make sure his defense will prove to be hostile guest.
“They had the brashness to schedule us for homecoming and our players should be offended by that,” said Russo. “They’re a true spread offense and they’re fast tempo, so we have to be technically sound and make them uncomfortable.”
With Water Valley protecting their first winning streak under Embry, the second year head coach knows that this trip will tell just how far his team has come.
“Obviously we’re experiencing new things every day, every week, with this football team and now we’ve got to win three in a row and go on the road. It’ll be interesting, it’ll be fun,” said Embry.