Vicksburg’s defense, special teams key to Red Carpet Bowl victory

Published 9:17 am Monday, August 24, 2015

The enduring highlight from Vicksburg High’s win over Harrison Central in the 2015 Red Carpet Bowl will be the 23-yard touchdown pass from Joe Johnson to Raheam Moore that capped a last-minute, game-winning scoring drive.

Even to the players who pulled that feat off, however, there was no denying what made it possible.

“The defense saved the game,” Johnson said. “(Defensive coordinator Bill) King came in, this was his first game, and he really got the defense right. The defense put it on them all game.”

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Vicksburg’s defense held firm all night long, allowing only two touchdowns despite Harrison Central’s eight trips inside the 30-yard line. Its special teams set up the game-winning drive with a long kickoff return and punter Greg Hayden bailed the offense out of trouble with a number of booming punts.

On a night when the offense only generated 181 total yards — more than half of them on two long touchdown passes — it was the kind of total team effort the Gators needed to pull out a victory.

“We were the centerpiece of the team,” senior linebacker Antonio Brown said. “We kept working, kept grinding, and never gave up.”

Hayden, in particular, kept grinding and was an unsung hero for the Gators.

The sophomore’s first punt of the game traveled only five yards. He punted nine more times and, excluding the shank, averaged 42 yards per kick. His shortest kick was a 32-yarder from Harrison Central territory that was downed inside the 20-yard line.

“I had to clear my head in front of the net and get my kicking right. The next time I went out there, I promised myself I’d do better and get it right the second time,” Hayden said.

Hayden’s punts not only flipped field position, they led to points. His longest punt of the game was a 58-yarder in the second quarter that was downed at the 1-yard line. On the next play, the Gators’ defense broke through the line to tackle running back Ronald Garvin in the end zone for a safety.

“That’s what lost (Harrison) the game, was the way he flipped field position on them all night,” Vicksburg coach Marcus Rogers said. “They had to go the length, and that gives the defense margin of error. And I like our defense vs. margin of error.”

First-year defensive coordinator Bill King introduced an attacking, speed-based scheme during the offseason that was designed to turn the Gators’ lack of bulk into an asset. It produced results in its debut.

In addition to the safety, the Gators forced four fumbles and recovered three, and sacked Harrison Central quarterback Tavis Williams three times. Two of the sacks came on either third or fourth down to end drives, and the third came on the last possession of the game when the Red Rebels were trying to put together a last-ditch drive of their own.

“Bill King is a guy I’ve known for the last five or six years,” Rogers said. “He’s been in the coaching ranks from Hattiesburg to Canton, to Velma Jackson. He played at Meridian. So he came from good stock. He told me, ‘Coach, you don’t have to worry about this. I’ve got you.’ Defense wins championships.”

The Gators have a long way to go before they get to hoist a trophy other than the Red Carpet Bowl’s bronze football. Ten regular-season games remain, starting this Friday night at Terry, and there were as many concerns raised in the win over Harrison Central as there were reasons to be excited.

For now, though, the Gators are on a high. Finding a way to win in the last two minutes when they didn’t play a great offensive game was encouraging and will help them carry momentum into the rest of the season.

“This is not the old Vicksburg. This is the new Vicksburg. We’re going to keep our head up at any point in the game,” senior cornerback Paul Wilson said. “We’ve got a great senior crew. We’ve got a lot of leaders on the team. We’re here to play. If we go in and practice like we did all summer, we’re going to go undefeated the whole year.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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