By Reid Bankston
WATER VALLEY – With a playoff spot on the line against a team that has become one of Water Valley’s most heated rivals, it was bound to be another slugfest between the Blue Devils and the Winona Tigers.
Behind an impressive second half defensive performance, and some timely big plays on offense, Water Valley (8-2 overall, 3-1 league) squeezed past Winona (8-2, 2-2) 31-21, to at least clinch second place in the division.
The tone for senior night at Bobby Clark field was set early, as some pregame verbal sparring between Winona’s highly touted running back Chief Brown and the Water Valley defense got the blood boiling on both sides.
When the game actually began, it was the Blue Devils that struck first, as Eric Buckley out raced Brown to the end zone for a 36 yard touchdown, capping off an emphatic seven-play, 72 yard touchdown drive. Alex Robles’ connected on the extra point, to give Water Valley a 7-0 lead with 7:46 to go in the first quarter.
Brown, an Ole Miss commitment and one of the top players in the state of Mississippi, wasted no time giving his reply, scoring on a 65 yard touchdown run on the first play of the ensuing drive. The Tiger extra point was successful, tying the game at 7-7 just ten seconds after the Blue Devils took the lead.
“They just try to get him (Brown) in space and let him make plays, and that’s smart on their part,” said Water Valley head coach Brady Embry.
Both teams traded punts before Water Valley again took the lead, this time on the legs of freshman quarterback E.J. Bounds. The Blue Devils took advantage of great field position provided by Chris Conard, as the junior cornerback intercepted a Nick Glover pass at the Water Valley 30 yard line. Again Robles was successful with the extra point, giving the Blue Devils a 14-7 lead with 3:10 left in the first quarter.
“I saw a bunch of holes and I just made big plays at the right time,” said Bounds. “It was really important to build up the momentum and score a lot in the first half, because the defense kind of struggled early.”
The bad blood between the two teams, which stretches back to postgame altercation between players last season, again was displayed on Winona’s next drive, as Water Valley’s Adam Langham and Winona’s Kendorious Townsend were both ejected for throwing punches.
Danny Smith recovered a Winona fumble on the next play, but Robles failed to convert a field goal seven plays later, turning the ball back over to the Tigers.
Winona again struck back on their next possession, as Glover found Lacharles Washington for a 78 touchdown reception, tying the game at 14-14 with 10:09 left to go in the half.
“They have a ton of weapons and force you to defend the field. We had three missed assignments in the first half, and boy did they make us pay for them,” said Water Valley defensive coordinator Richard Russo.“We have to clean that up moving forward.”
Water Valley could muster very little on their next drive, as the Tigers forced a Blue Devil punt.
Winona needed only five plays to take the lead on their ensuing possession, as Patrick Purnell found the end zone from 12 yards out, giving Winona a 21-14 lead with 4:19 left in the half.
Water Valley turned to their power rushing game to even the score just before the halftime, as the Blue Devils rushed the ball eight times on a nine play, 67 yard touchdown drive capped off by an eight yard Torrey Horton touchdown run. Robles converted the extra point to tie the game 21-21 with 46 seconds to go before halftime.
“We felt like they didn’t get a lot on us that we didn’t give them, and we corrected that and shut them out in the second half,” said Embry.
Neither team was able to establish their offensive will on the third quarter, as each defense got a foothold in the game.
Water Valley finally broke the second half deadlock with a Robles 23 yard field goal with 11:51 remaining in the game. The youngster, who has proved to be quite a find for the Blue Devil coaching staff, barely squeezed in the field goal, as it hit the upright on its way through.
Robles’ successful field goal was set up by a 44 yard run on a fake punt by Horton, which gave the Blue Devil offense a much needed spark.
“We practice it, we might as well run it,” said a smiling Embry. “We looked at it all game and we knew it was there, we just waited for the right time to run it.”
Water Valley continued to stifle Winona on the ensuing possession, as Brown and Glover found little freedom in the second half.
The Blue Devil offense took over on their own 23 yard line after a Winona punt, looking to seal the win with a long drive.
As he has so many times in the past, Embry kept the ball on the ground for most of the drive, but it was a 28 yard reception by sophomore Alden Burns that moved the Blue Devils to the Winona 29 yard line.
“Alden played great, he’s the kind of guy that is right there on the verge of playing all of the time, and tonight was his night,” said Embry.
Burns also recovered two onside kick attempts by Winona, earning praise from both coaches and teammates.
Water Valley iced the game five plays later, as Zenty Allen rushed in from one yard out, giving the Blue Devils a 31-21 lead with 3:24 left in the game.
The Blue Devils finished the night with 278 yards rushing on 51 carries.Horton led the way with 92 yards, while Bounds and Buckley rushed for 82 yards and 56 yards respectively.
Winona’s highly touted rushing attack barely got going in the second half, as Brown finished the night with 99 yards, 65 of which came in the opening stages of the game.
“For the defense to hold an SEC-caliber player like Chief Brown to only 99 yards rushing is outstanding and a testament to their practice habits and the players and coaches work this past week,” said Russo. “It also didn’t hurt that the Tigers danced on our WV. Our kids really took offense to that and protected Death Valley.”
Winona’s last attempt to get back into the game was ended when Desmond Hervey blocked a 27 yard field goal with 59 seconds to go, wrapping up the victory for Water Valley.
“This group of guys has a lot of pride and you can’t underestimate the will of these kids,” said Embry. “I can’t take any credit, it’s these kids.”
With a win over Winona, the Blue Devils secured an undefeated home record during the regular season, giving the Water Valley players and coaches something to cling to heading into the playoffs.
“We know if we can win these games, we’ll get to host playoff games at home and that’ll give us momentum to hopefully go all the way,” said Bounds.
Water Valley Heads to Mooreville
Water Valley will visit the Mooreville Troopers (7-3, 1-3) for their regular season finale, before hosting a first round playoff game for the second consecutive year.
The Troopers looked to be a potential Cinderella team in the division, winning their first six games, but a three game losing streak against South Pontotoc, Winona, and Aberdeen, has put Mooreville with work to do if they hope to secure a playoff berth.
Offensively, the Troopers are led by quarterback Griff Loftis, who is averaging 138 yards per game thru the air. Loftis has thrown 12 touchdowns as well as six interceptions.
The Mooreville defense had an impressive start to the season, holding opponents to just under ten points per game in their first six games. However, since the Troopers entered division play, things haven’t been quite as solid, as the Mooreville defense has given up 37.5 points per game.