Gators beat Callaway to clinch playoff berth

Published 12:33 am Friday, October 27, 2017

JACKSON — Vicksburg High’s football season is not only salvaged, it’s just getting started.

Joe Johnson threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third score, and Nick Anderson returned an interception 28 yards for a game-clinching touchdown late in the fourth quarter as the Gators beat Callaway 29-21 Thursday night.

With its fourth win in five games — and third in a row — Vicksburg (4-6, 4-2 Region 2-5A) clinched the No. 3 seed in Region 2-5A and will go on the road to play Olive Branch in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs on Nov. 10. The Gators finish the regular season next Friday at home against Holmes County Central.

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It’s been an unlikely run to a postseason berth for a team that lost each of its first five games by at least two touchdowns.

“We’ve just had to come together as a team,” said Anderson, who had his second interception return touchdown of the season. “A lot of people hung their heads on us and gave up on us after 0-5, but we just came together as a team under the leadership of Coach (Lorenzo) Breland. The seniors stepped up and we’re going to the playoffs as the No. 3 seed to Olive Branch.”

Johnson recovered from throwing a pick-six on the game’s opening drive to finish 18-of-28 passing for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He added 42 yards and a score on the ground.

Johnson’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Wilbert with 9:34 left in the third quarter — along with a two-point conversion pass from Jermaine Wesley to De’Angelo Dixon on a fake PAT — gave the Gators a 22-7 lead and seemed to have them well on their way to victory.

They wound up having to sweat it out, and then needing three defensive stops late in the fourth quarter to seal it.

Callaway answered the Johnson-to-Wilbert touchdown pass with two quick scoring drives on its next two possessions. Lakenith Thompson scored on a 21-yard run, and then Tyrese Winford hit Justin Manning for a 23-yard touchdown pass to make it 22-21 with 1:38 to go in the quarter.

After reaching the Callaway 23-yard line with just under four minutes left in the third quarter, the Gators had a holding penalty, a sack and a botched gadget play on consecutive snaps. The three misfires lost a total of 39 yards and led to a punt from their own 38. It was also just the beginning of a bad offensive quarter.

Vicksburg only had nine yards of offense, two first downs, and 94 yards in penalties beginning with that sequence late in the third quarter.

For the game, Vicksburg was penalized 13 times for 152 yards. Ten of the penalties were in the second half. Callaway had six penalties for 67 yards.

“I know we’re not perfect, but the other team isn’t, either. We had five or six holding calls in crucial situations to their zero. So it’s just one of those things that we’ve got to continue to clean up,” Breland said.

Luckily for the Gators, their defense more than picked up the slack. D’Anfernee Battle had two of the team’s three sacks in the game, and the defense forced two turnovers in the final four minutes — one of which was Anderson’s pick-six.

The senior linebacker intercepted a screen pass by Winford and raced untouched up the right sideline to give the Gators a 29-21 lead with 3:33 remaining in the game.

Anderson said he was tipped off to the play by overhearing a conversation along Callaway’s sideline.

“On that down, the offensive tackle went to the sideline and I saw his coach tell him to come block me. If he’s fixing to block me, I already know it’s a screen,” Anderson said. “He came to me and (defensive end) Jo’Mon (O’Neal) pushed him down and then the quarterback threw it out. I ran under it and picked it off and took it back for six.”

Elmer Johnson picked off a deflected pass near midfield to stop Callaway’s next drive, but the Chargers got the ball back one last time with 1:30 to go. They got one first down, and then threw an incompletion deep down the field. Callaway’s coaching staff drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty while arguing for a pass interference call, which pushed them back to their own 20.

Winford was sacked by O’Neal on the next play, and there was only time for one last throw down the field that fell incomplete as time expired.

“It’s a big win going into senior night and our last regular-season home game,” Anderson said. “It’s a big confidence win. Everybody’s playing good and we’re peaking at the right time.”

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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