Four Down Territory: Defense sparks PCA again; Mississippi’s FBS teams pile up the offense

Published 3:01 pm Sunday, September 3, 2023

Welcome to Four Down territory, where each week we recap four notes, nuggets or trends from the week that was in Mississippi high school football, college football and the NFL.

On a night when its offense was slowed down by a quality opponent, Porter’s Chapel Academy stepped up its game on defense to rack up another victory.

The Eagles totaled six sacks and held Riverdale Academy to 251 total yards in a 26-18 overtime victory on Friday. It added to a growing list of outstanding defensive efforts that have propelled the team to its first 4-0 start since 2008.

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“I think our defense has been playing good all year long. They bailed us out several times tonight,” PCA coach Blake Purvis said.

The Eagles had nine takeaways and two defensive touchdowns in their first three games. A fumble recovery in the second quarter was their only takeaway against Riverdale, but they did force four turnovers on downs — including two with the game on the line.

Late in the fourth quarter, Riverdale escaped a fourth-and-10 from its own one when punter Kaidyn Williams dropped the snap in the end zone and then ran for a first down. The Rebels’ drive eventually reached PCA’s 17-yard line before a holding penalty and a sack by Thomas Azlin helped end it with one second left. It was Azlin’s third sack of the game, to go along with 13 tackles. He also caught two touchdown passes.

In overtime, Riverdale scored on its first play and PCA answered with two touchdowns of its own to go up 26-18 in the second extra period. Riverdale wound up with fourth-and-goal from the 9-yard line on its second possession, and Gavin Pugh broke up a pass at the goal line to send PCA home a winner.

Pugh only had four tackles, but contributed two key plays — his pass breakup to end the game, and a 51-yard punt to the 1-yard line to pin Riverdale deep for its final possession of regulation.

“I just cut in front of him. I saw the ball in the air and cut in front of him and slapped him down,” Pugh said of the final play. “It felt amazing, especially to put us 4-0 right now.”

Mississippi State didn’t abandon the passing game as it began the post-Mike Leach era, but it did embrace the run a lot more.

The Bulldogs ran the ball 39 times for 298 yards in a 48-7 win over Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday. It was their most rushing attempts and yards since 2019.

Jo’Quavious Marks had a team-high 127 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. He was the first 100-yard rusher for Mississippi State since Kylin Hill did it in the 2019 Egg Bowl against Ole Miss. Mississippi State had 44 attempts in that game, and the last time it surpassed 300 yards was the week before with 372 vs. Abilene Christian.

“I expected this because we’ve been running the ball a lot during our practices,” Marks said. “That showed up today with us rushing for almost 300 yards. That’s pretty big for this offense.”

Backup quarterback Mike Wright also approached 100 yards, finishing with 95 on only five attempts. His 53-yard run in the third quarter was the first of 50 yards or more by an MSU player since Hill did it against Ole Miss in 2019.

Creed Whittemore broke a 53-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter as well.

Mississippi State had 236 rushing yards in the second half, as it scored 28 unanswered points to pull away.

“You always preach as a coach to get the run game established,” said Zach Arnett, who won his debut as Mississippi State’s head coach. “When you do that, those gains that were three and four yards in the first half turn into six and seven yard gains and then you break them. That’s the philosophy. I thought we did a good job coming out at halftime.”

As injuries and ineffectiveness took their toll last season, Southern Miss used eight players — including two running backs — to fill a gaping hole at the quarterback position.

Right now, at least, it seems they’ve finally found their guy.

Redshirt sophomore Billy Wiles, a transfer from Clemson, completed 21 of 28 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-14 win over Alcorn State in Saturday’s season opener.

“He played really well and was in command,” Southern Miss coach Will Hall said. “I was pleased with how he ran the ball and it’s something he can build off of.”

Wiles led Southern Miss to scoring drives on its first three possessions. He threw a 16-yard pass to Jakarius Caston with 12:53 left in the first quarter for the team’s first touchdown of 2023, and later had a 2-yarder to Frank Gore Jr. and a 3-yarder to Tyquan Henderson.

Wiles hadn’t played since 2021, and this was his first college start. He only had 11 snaps as a freshman at Clemson and redshirted in 2022.

“It didn’t feel like it’s been ages because of the reps I have been getting at practice. The only thing that has been different is I have been wearing a red jersey,” Wiles said. “Getting my first hit was good and let me loosen up a little bit, so that was fun.”

Ole Miss was one of three Football Bowl Subdivision teams to score at least 70 points in its opener, as it routed Mercer 73-7.

It was the first time the Rebels have cracked the 70-point barrier since 2018, when they beat Southern Illinois 76-41, and not surprisingly a few other milestones were achieved as well.

Quarterbacks Jaxson Dart, Spencer Sanders and Howard Walker combined for a school-record 524 passing yards. The previous record was 517 against Louisiana-Monroe in 2018.

Dart, the starter, was 18-of-23 for 334 yards and four touchdowns. Sanders was 8-of-14 for 134 yards and two TDs, and Walker went 3-for-4 for 56 yards.

Wide receiver Tre Harris set an Ole Miss record with four touchdown receptions. Eleven players had caught three in a game, most recently Michael Trigg last season vs. Central Arkansas. Harris finished with six catches for 133 yards, with his touchdowns covering 38, 28, 20 and 16 yards. Three of his touchdowns came in the first five minutes of the game, and the record-breaker early in the third quarter.

The 28 points the Rebels scored in the first quarter was their most in a season opener since at least 1967.

“I looked at the scoreboard and realized it was 21-7 pretty quickly,” Harris said. “My mindset going in was to dominate. That was the whole team’s mindset. We didn’t care who we were playing, that was what we came out and did.”

The other FBS teams to score more than 70 points on Saturday were Oklahoma, which beat Arkansas State 73-0; and Oregon, which beat Portland State 81-7.

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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